Retreat Agenda: Mend Relations, Hash Out School Financing

Posted by November 21, 2013

As my colleague Dan Whisenhunt pointed out, the agenda is pretty vague for the Friday joint retreat for the Decatur City Commission and Decatur School Board. What will happen?

I asked Mayor Jim Basket and School Board Chairman Marc Wisniewski that question recently. This is what they told me.

On Friday morning, the two groups will spend the first four hours in team-building exercises. Dr. Randy Dobbs from Georgia State University has been hired to lead these exercises. This kind of thing is typical of government and corporate retreats.

After lunch, they’ll get down to the real business of deciding the best way to finance new construction for the fast-growing school system.

Basically, the city wants to create a “blue ribbon committee” that will involve regular citizens. The school board would prefer a board/commission study panel.

Wisniewski said most of the important planning has already been done.

The school system put months of effort into planning a $59 million bond referendum for the November 2013 ballot that would have financed renovations at Decatur High and Renfroe Middle. The city commission refused to schedule the vote, saying they needed more information.

“We’ve gone through a variety of different solutions and feel pretty strongly that this is the right way to go,” Wisniewski said.

“Having a group of citizens who aren’t very knowledgeable, with all due respect to them, go through and re-evaluate that is not a productive use of time,” he said. “We have limited time and we have limited resources. So it’s more about what’s the best thing for the city and citizens. That’s a board-commission discussion.”

As far as publicizing the referendum, Wisniewski said that could be handled by a committee of staffers and citizens.

Baskett says involving a lot of people in big decisions is the Decatur way. Plus, his constituents are telling him “loud and clear” to slow down the process so people can talk about it.

“The city commission finds it very important and advantageous to involve the public in processes that help us make decisions,” he said. “We’ve always done that. Why would be do this any different? We’re talking about a major financing proposition. Why not garner public input? I don’t understand why anybody wouldn’t favor that.”

He added, “If a blue ribbon committee is not the best way to move forward, what is?”

Though Wisniewski thinks board/commission relations are strained, Baskett said they’re really pretty good.

He remembers problems from the early 1990s, when the city charter changed and the school board first became an elected body. In recent years the two groups have cooperated in transferring school property into the school board’s hands and building a public works building together. When the Beacon Hill Complex renovation is finished, the school system administrative offices will move there.

“I think that’s significant,” the mayor said.

Wisniewski said it’s partly an issue of autonomy. Problems are built into the relationship because the school board needs the city’s permission to do certain things, like hold a bond referendum.

“That puts at odds two governing bodies,” he said. “That’s problematic. …Without rewriting the city charter, we need to work together.”


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