Despite the law, DeKalb school minutes vanish without a trace
By JIM WALLS
Paper has been around more than 2,000 years, the folks at Georgia Tech’s Robert C. Williams Paper Museum tell me. Word-processing software started to take off about four decades ago.
Each invention represented a huge advance in our ability to record information for posterity. Either technology is also acceptable for complying with Georgia’s Open Meetings Act, which requires that government agencies keep records of official meetings.
DeKalb County schools are in the education business, but they haven’t learned to adhere to that basic principle.
We told you a few weeks ago that a 2005 audit reportedly found up to $14.8 million in bloated salaries for non-classroom personnel in DeKalb. When a citizen asked for that audit, which cost taxpayers $341,000, officials produced a job reclassification proposal but nothing that would identify a single employee who was being overpaid.
Why does this matter today? Because, with the school district continuing to face major budget deficits, parents and other school watchers want to know whether more fat can be trimmed outside the classroom.
I followed up, asking for the minutes of three meetings in 2004 and 2005 where the audit was discussed. School officials found minutes of one meeting, and rudimentary notes — no one seemed to know who made them– for another.
There was no trace of minutes for a third, two-hour briefing on the audit on April 1, 2004, even though records seem to show the school board approved those minutes a month later. That session, unaccountably, is also missing entirely from the board’s online archive of nine years of board meetings.
The “complete executive summary” of the compensation study was also to be included in the official file of a fourth board meeting in September 2005, minutes show. But it’s not there now, schools spokesman Walter Woods said.
Why is all this stuff missing? “Record-keeping, human error, I think there is a number of factors,” Woods said.
Lynn Cherry Grant, who stepped down in 2008 after serving 16 years on the DeKalb board, had a different take when I called her about it.
“I have no explanation for that except for very bad management of official documents,” she said. “There’s no excuse for board meeting minutes to be missing.”
Georgia law, in fact, requires that minutes of school board meetings must be kept — permanently. Failing to do so is a misdemeanor. Destroying public documents – not that I’m saying that happened – can be prosecuted as a felony.
The notes on a January 2005 meeting appear to show about $12 million of the estimated overpayments were for school-based personnel, including social workers, psychologists, principals and assistant principals. Another $1 million or so, then-Superintendent Crawford Lewis told the board, were for food-service managers and workers.
Two months later, the consultant from Ernst & Young told board members that the $14.8 million figure was incorrect and had “dropped significantly,” minutes show.
Ernst & Young delivered a report later that year calling for new job titles and pay scales across the board.
Those specific recommendations were never put into effect, officials now say, but they’re not entirely sure why. They suggested the school board chose not to proceed but could not produce evidence of such a decision.
Grant said it’s quite possible the matter slipped through the cracks. “Those days were a very turbulent time,” Grant said.
Grant also recalls that some other board members were upset about some of the consultant’s findings.
“Everybody had a sacred cow,” she said. “If you had a relative or best friend or somebody you went to church with … then you were not very happy to hear they were being overpaid by $5,000.”
Grant said she could only speculate today how those matters might have been resolved. But of one thing she is certain.
“Never dismiss the power of politics. I learned that on the board of education.”