Taylor Speaks: HR 4 (previously HR-486) – Independent School System Constitutional Amendment

HR-4 (2015- 2016 session) was previously introduced as  HR-486 (2013-2014 session), is a constitutional amendment that would essentially repeal a ban on any establishment of additional independent school districts.  This ban was put in place by a constitutional amendment enacted in 1945. Currently Georgia has 180 public school systems, 159 county systems and 21 city systems that were “grandfathered” in when the 1945 change took place.  A change to the Georgia Constitution requires a supermajority 2/3rds vote in the House, a 2/3rds vote in the Senate, and then passage of a referendum on a statewide ballot. Changing the Constitution is difficult by design and is a very high hurdle to achieve.

This legislation has a bit of history, but the ultimate impetus for this was the dissatisfaction with the continual poor performance, lack of accountability, and rampant corruption and incompetence of the DeKalb County School System.  The critical tipping point occurred when the system had been put on probation by SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) and was very close to losing accreditation totally, forcing Governor Deal to take the unprecedented but needed action of removing the school board in 2013, and appointing a “caretaker” board pending new elections.  Unfortunately, only 7 members of the 23 member DeKalb legislative delegation stood with the Governor on this decision.  Apparently the remainder of the delegation were fine with the failing status quo.

I dropped HR-486 in 2013 and started the process to attempt to pass the amendment allowing for new independent school systems.  We had hearings in front of the House Education Committee  in 2013, but because the bill was introduced rather late in the session, it did not get voted out of committee.  During that same time, a group of citizens formed an advocacy group known as GLASS (Georgians for Local Area School Systems) and did research, outreach, advocacy and education efforts in the community and General Assembly.

In the 2014 session, we came back and successfully got the bill passed out of committee.  The difficult process of the “whipping” the House members to gauge the number of votes prior to bringing the legislation to the House floor for a vote.  This is a critical process, since the 2/3rds number required is 120 f the total 180 House members.  Unlike many pieces of legislation, this was not really a partisan issue, it crossed party lines.  The largest bone of contention was reluctance to change and perceived loss of control by local school boards, which are the largest employers in many counties regardless of political party.

Ultimately, we were unable to garner the number of votes to ensure passage, and the decision was made to make a tactical withdrawal and reintroducing the bill in the 2015-2016 session.  It is critical to note that it is not just having 120 supporters of the bill, but having the 120 minimum voting members in support present on the House floor at the time the bill come up, which has no time clock.  If it fails even by one vote, the legislation could be delayed several years in a practical sense.

The bill was reintroduced as HR-4 in the 2015-2016 session, and again was heard and was passed out with a favorable recommendation for passage.  I also want to add that between the sessions of 2013-2014 and 2015-2016, there were elections and we had numerous House seats become vacant and new members elected to them, requiring the education process and frankly the sales process of passing the bill to the newly elected members.

Unfortunately again, we were unable to get to the numbers required and had 3 of the bill co-sponsors leave the House in mid-term.  Representative Mike Jacobs was appointed to a judgeship by the Governor, Representative Lynne Riley was appointed as State Revenue Commissioner by the Governor, and Representative Harry Geisinger passed away right after the session in 2015.  All of these legislators were replaced by newly elected officials who either opposed the bill, or were new to the process and unsure of their position on the issue.

With these key supporters gone, and with a number of other members resigning, being appointed to other job, or in the case of Representative Bob Bryant, died in office during session…we could not confirm the numbers and chose not to advance the bill not sure of having the supermajority required for passage.

With this said, the bill to incorporate Dunwoody was first introduced in 1971 by Representative Harry Geisinger, and it failed.  It was then introduced next by Senator Dan Weber in 2006.  It failed in 2006 by not ever getting a vote, again in 2007, and finally passing in 2008.  The bill to get our parks and other properties from the county was also introduced by Senator Weber in 2006, failed to pass then, as well as in 2007, 2008, 2009, and then finally passed in 2010, it’s fifth session in the legislature.

With all of this said, this legislation is my highest priority, but still realistically a heavy lift.  At the end of the 2016 session on March 24th, we had 19 long term member choose to retire and not return, as well as over 20+ more facing primary elections.  I plan to reintroduce the Constitutional amendment again in the 2017-2018 session and continue to push for this legislation which would change the entire paradigm of education not just here, but throughout the state.

I was on the point of the spear for both the legislation to incorporate Dunwoody, as well as get our parks, properties and the associated bond proceeds.  All of these took time, but were ultimately successful.  We got our city and our parks, and I will continue with the priority effort to get an independent school system.