By John T. Bennett
As Detroit – beset by violence, debt and social woes – prepares to undergo a historic takeover by the Michigan state government, the city of Atlanta could be sliding toward a similar fate.
Some are quietly wondering whether Atlanta is in danger of becoming “the Detroit of the South.”
The city has experienced an ongoing succession of government scandals, ranging from a massive cheating racket to corruption, bribery, school-board incompetence and now the potential loss of accreditation for the local DeKalb County school system.
For several years, problems of this sort have fueled political reforms, including the creation of new cities in northern Atlanta suburbs. Due to the intensification of corruption scandals in DeKalb, some state-level reform proposals could become national news very soon.
‘Super-white majority’ cities
As a result of the unsavory politics in urban Atlanta, northern suburban communities acted to distance themselves. Beginning in 2005, many communities began the process of incorporating into cities.
Thus far, Milton, Sandy Springs, Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Chattahoochee Hills and Johns Creek have done so.
These cities, after breaking away politically from urban Atlanta, have become so successful that a libertarian think tank, the Reason Foundation, has featured Sandy Springs as a model of effective government. The Economist has also applauded the northern Atlanta cities for solving the problem of unfunded government pension liability and avoiding the bankruptcy that looms over some urban areas. The new cities may soon be able to create their own school districts, which would free them even further from the issues besetting Atlanta.
While incorporation has been popular with residents of the new cities, not all of Atlanta is as satisfied. The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus filed a lawsuit in 2011 to dissolve the new cities, claiming they were a “super-white majority” and diluting the voting power of minorities.
A key leader in the black community and a driving force in support of the lawsuit, who wishes to remain anonymous, bemoaned the “disturbing tendency of black electorates to not elect the smartest and brightest, or even the cleverest.”
Nonetheless, he believes that there is a social contract between the northern and southern parts of the county.
“So when you allow powerful groups of citizens to opt out of a social contract, and form their own, it may benefit the group opting out, but it hurts the larger collective,” he said.
The lawsuit would have canceled incorporation and tied the cities back into the very county that they purposefully left.
State Rep. Lynne Riley, a Republican who represents one of the new cities, called the lawsuit “frivilous” and “disrespectful to the citizens of these cities who are most satisfied with their government.”
The federal trial court rejected the lawsuit, and the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal. However, an attorney for the Black Caucus plans to file an amended lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the same concerns that spurred incorporation continue to mount.
Now, the county is faced with losing its regional accreditation. Losing regional accreditation is, by any objective measure, a devastating indictment of a school board, with severe consequences for students and families within the district.
When nearby Clayton County, Ga., lost its regional accreditation in 2008, it was the first school system in the country to do so in 40 years.
The result in Clayton, according to the Pew Foundation, was that thousands of students left county schools, the district lost millions of dollars and hundreds of teachers were fired.
In response to the Clayton County crisis, after witnessing the fallout and the harm to the state’s reputation, the legislature acted to prevent a repeat. In 2011, the Georgia legislature essentially gave the governor authority to remove board of education members when a district was placed on probation by the accreditation agency.
Last December, DeKalb was placed on probation. Then, in January, the governor of Georgia used his new authority and removed six members of the nine-member DeKalb Board of Education.
This year, well after the accreditation issue broke open, DeKalb school board elections were held. Four of nine board members were up for reelection. Voters in one of the four districts returned their incumbent board member for another term, despite knowing that accreditation was at risk.
This week, a federal judge sided with the governor and agreed that the six suspended board members can be replaced. The decision places the dispute into the Georgia Supreme Court’s purview.
As the issue looms, the mere mention of losing accreditation has impacted the housing market in DeKalb, with at least one potential buyer directing his realtor not to search for homes in the county.
Recently, at the helm of the DeKalb school system stood Crawford Lewis. The former superintendent has been indicted on racketeering charges.
Along with several of his associates, Lewis is accused by the DeKalb DA of fraud, theft by a government employee, bribery and a web of racketeering. The charges arose out of Lewis’ practice of steering lucrative government contracts toward favored companies.
According to the indictment, Lewis also used government funds to pay for a hotel room, which he used as the venue for an affair. Lewis had this affair with a person who held the position of “Executive Director of the Office of School Improvement.”
One of the numerous complaints about the DeKalb school board was that it voted to pay for Lewis’ legal defense. There had been a $100,000 cap on the costs allowed for legal defense, but the school board waived it for Lewis’ benefit.
The CEO in charge
At the very top, the head of DeKalb’s government is the position of CEO. The current CEO, Burrell Ellis, is being investigated for a list of concerns, including alleged bid rigging. Police searched Ellis’s home and office recently, and local news outlets report that while no charges have been filed, search warrants are reportedly aimed toward potential extortion, bribery, theft, conspiracy, and wire fraud in connection with private vendors who contract with the county.
Most recently, Ellis sought approval from the county ethics board to establish a legal defense fund to benefit himself. The board rebuffed the request.
A corrupt school board becomes a civil rights issue
Instead of being treated as a story about rampant, inexcusable corruption, the school board fiasco has morphed into a civil rights issue. Atlanta’s NBC affiliate reports that the Georgia NAACP “accused Republican Governor Nathan Deal of being part of an alleged conspiracy to get rid of black office holders and deprive black voters of their rights.”
State Rep. Tyrone Books pointed out that criticism of the governor needed to include a word about black politicians who supported the governor’s removal authority.
“How can we complain about him when we have black folks standing there embracing the removal of black officials?” asked Brooks, D-Atlanta.
The state legislature is trying to prevent public funds from being used in the legal defense of the ousted board members. Because the ousted board members see their positions as a civil rights entitlement, the attorney’s fees required for their defense will quickly rise, unless legislation puts an end to the entitlement.
One of the suspended board members, Eugene Walker, responded to the judge’s ruling with a familiar appeal: “Minorities should not feel secure if contrived allegations from anonymous sources with hidden agendas can go to private agencies and to have their civil rights stolen away.”
DeKalb has changed from majority white to majority black over the last several decades. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution gingerly put it: “The county’s transition from majority white to majority minority was politically rocky .”