Now in my fourth decade on the planet, I thought I possessed a modestly experienced view of the world. I hardly expected to be proved foolishly naive at this point. How wrong I was.
I understood quite well that politicians were all influenced by special interests to some degree or another. However, when it came to school boards, I believed those who ran and served were somehow different. I naively thought school board members rose above the fray to serve the best interest of the students and basically went about the business of building schools and funding classrooms. I thought they were public servants in the broader sense, rather than, well, politicians.
The Cobb County Board of Education recently proved me wrong with the Feb. 17 vote to change the school calendar. On the surface, it would seem nothing more than three newly sworn-in board members honoring positions from their campaigns stating a preference for a later start date in August.
However, I voted for one of these candidates, Kathleen Angelucci, and found myself shocked by how abrupt the change came. And I'm hardly alone. The community has been outspoken on the decision, SACS has inquired about the change, and the Cobb County grand jury weighed in this month. In addition to being shocked by the hasty change, I have also been dissatisfied with all the reasons board members have given for the change and began doing a little research of my own.
It's this research that has opened my eyes to how wildly naive my views on school board members have been. I write this as a warning to others. Beware.
Beginning sometime in the 1990s, a group of citizens began advocating for a shorter school year and a 12-week-or-longer summer in the state of Texas. This group evolved into Texans for a Traditional School Year, then into a national group called the Coalition for a Traditional School Year. The former group was successful in getting a state law passed in Texas that strips control from local school boards and mandates a statewide public school start date of the fourth Monday in August or later. Both groups are led by Texan Tina Bruno.
Fast-forward to the new millennium and a similar group forms in Georgia. This group eventually incorporates as Georgians Need Summers. According to its own website, www.georgiansneedsummers.com, the group is a “nonprofit grassroots organization" that basically advocates for a shorter school year and a longer summer. And here is where it gets interesting for Georgians.
(1) In papers filed with the Georgia secretary of state, Georgians Need Summers claims to be a nonprofit, specifically a 501(c)(4). However, the IRS has no record of this organization being an exempt nonprofit, and there are no publicly available tax returns (a legal requirement for nonprofits) available through http://www.guidestar.com (even the IRS routinely directs callers to GuideStar for nonprofit tax returns).
(2) In those same papers, Georgians Need Summers states it is organized for "the promotion of the social welfare of the people of the State of Georgia, including promoting and lobbying for a SHORTER school year for the students of the State of Georgia."
(3) The papers go on to state that "no substantial part of the activities of the corporation shall be the carrying on of political activities, and the corporation shall not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements) any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."
Why is all this relevant? Because I, and many of my fellow citizens in Cobb, have been busy going about our lives and raising our families, and we unfortunately missed the following:
(1) Georgians Need Summers never amended its documents with the secretary of state and still claims to be "a grassroots nonprofit" on the website. They are listed as a “Profit Corporation–Domestic.”
(2) Georgians Need Summers was administratively dissolved by the secretary of state on May 16, 2008, and its certificate of corporation was revoked.
(3) Vivian Jackson, co-founder of Georgians Need Summers, and Kathleen Angelucci (present school board member) actively campaigned for the election of school board member Dr. John Abraham in 2006.
(4) Lane Holt, co-founder of Georgians Need Summers, served as campaign manager of the Committee to Elect Scott Sweeney in 2010. Sweeney won a school board seat and was sworn in on Jan. 6. As early as Jan. 9, he began to request that the school calendar be placed on the board's agenda.
I also found that Lane Holt was quoted in an article for the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Aug. 4, 2008, as saying, “Many school-board candidates are endorsing moving back the school calendar, and if one district takes that step, it will generate enough momentum for others to follow.” You’ll note Holt’s comments came after the secretary of state administratively dissolved Georgians Need Summers.
(5) Jackson and Holt have testified before the Georgia General Assembly in support of a statewide uniform start date for public schools. The most recent bill considered was H.B. 1097, which would have required all Georgia public schools to begin no earlier than the third full week in August.
(6) Scotti Madison, listed as the executive director of Georgians Need Summers, made a campaign contribution to Angelucci's election committee in 2010. Angelucci won a school board seat and was sworn in Jan. 6.
(7) After the November 2009 vote to adopt the balanced calendar for three years in Cobb schools, three parents in opposition to the balanced calendar were interviewed: Madison, Sweeney and Angelucci. Madison was identified as a founder of Georgians Need Summers in the interview.
(8) Catherine Busse served as the Campaign chairwoman for Angelucci's 2010 election committee and as the campaign support staff for Sweeney. While Busse's direct affiliation with Georgians Need Summers is unclear, she is known to be affiliated with Lane Holt and perhaps other leadership of Georgians Need Summers. She has also been a registered lobbyist with the state of Georgia.
(9) Georgians Need Summers has continued to publish information since its corporate dissolution. Per Georgia law, an administratively dissolved corporation may carry out only the business necessary to close the operation. Since the dissolution date, there have been no fewer than 15 articles and/or press statements published and credited to the co-founders of Georgians Need Summers. In March 2010, Lane Holt published a letter in support of H.B. 1097 and may have distributed this letter through the Georgians Need Summers network–clearly ongoing business.
(10) Georgians Need Summers has maintained its website, which is paid through Sept. 8. Interestingly, Tina Bruno is listed as the website's owner and/or administrator (remember, Bruno began organizing these groups in Texas). Bruno also happens to be the owner and/or administrator for www.SaveTennesseeSummers.org, www.SaveAlabamaSummers.org, www.SaveFloridaSummers.org, www.Save PennsylvaniaSummers.org and www.SaveArkansasSummers.org.
Bruno is also likely the ultimate owner of the websites for Texans for a Traditional School Year and the Coalition for a Traditional School Year, the organizations she launched. Plus, the groups for North Carolina and South Carolina are affiliated with the national coalition and state groups as well. The Wall Street Journal said: “One group, Texans for a Traditional School Year, says it has received funding from a powerful ally: the tourism industry. So far this year the group has received nearly $25,000, much of it from businesses ranging from hotels and restaurants to the ‘T-shirt people.’ ”
I'll admit, it truly never occurred to me that a special interest group was orchestrating elections for the Cobb County Board of Education on a countywide basis. My Post 4 school board candidate, Kathleen Angelucci, was the only name listed on the ballot in November. Although I was aware she didn’t support the balanced calendar, nowhere did I hear or see campaign statements made that she would “repeal or revert” to another calendar as her first official board business, changing a calendar that was already voted on and published for three years. I was further caught blindsided when I learned that the same special interest group had been working for years to strip control from local school boards across Georgia.
I write this as a warning to others. Do not be as naive as I have been. Citizens of Cherokee, Rockdale, Henry, Paulding and Douglas counties, take heed. You and the other 29 metro Atlanta counties where public schools begin in early August are at risk. School districts that choose modified calendars are in danger of losing their say to special interests like Georgians Need Summers and the tourism industry. My school board in Cobb County is now entrenched with this special interest group. Watch your elections carefully, or you may find yourself looking in the mirror wondering how you could have been so naive too.
Acworth-area parent, Kell High School district