Gov. Deal is in a bitter power struggle with Georgia’s schools chief

Gov. Nathan Deal shakes hands with Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods. AJC file.

Gov. Nathan Deal demanded Georgia’s superintendent explain what he’s doing to reverse a “downward spiral of failure” of struggling schools, as the state education chief steps up his argument that he should be in the middle of any major school turnaround effort.

In a series of letters, Deal noted that the number of “chronically failing schools” increased since state Superintendent Richard Woods’ 2014 election, while the schools chief countered that “effectively turning school performance around will take time.”

With lawmakers considering a sweeping statewide approach to so-called failing schools, Deal and Woods are at odds over whose office should oversee a new “Chief Turnaround Officer” in charge of monitoring the lowest-performing schools.

Deal considers the initiative his top priority this legislative session and supports the plan that passed the House last week requiring the turnaround chief to report to the state Board of Education that he appoints. Woods told lawmakers in the Senate, which is now considering the measure, that his office should be in charge of the new structure.

In a Feb. 28 letter obtained through a public records request, Deal noted that “some are contending that you and the Department of Education already possess sufficient authority to turn around chronically failing schools.”

“Considering that the number of chronically failing schools increased from 127 in school year 2014-2015 to 153 in school year 2015-2016,” he wrote to Woods, “I would like to know what actions DOE took during those two school years to reverse this downward spiral of failure.”

In a response sent days later, Woods wrote that he took office in January 2015 just as the concept of Opportunity School District – Deal’s plan to give the state new powers to take control of struggling schools – was taking shape. That constitutional amendment was scuttled by voters in November.

“Candidly, I did not want to take drastic actions or make public announcements that could have been viewed by you, lawmakers, or the voters as attempting to influence the outcome of the vote,” Woods responded. “I wanted to honor the process.”

He said many of the state’s school districts are under new academic performance contracts or recently-hired superintendents. And Woods argued that he would work with the chief turnaround officer to “pinpoint the needs of underperforming schools” if given control of the process.

“Let me assure you that bold actions have been taken within the Department to address the needs of our schools and I am committed to taking bold action to work directly with our underperforming schools and hold them accountable,” he wrote.

Deal’s office has not yet responded to Woods’ letter, which included reams of documents such as magazine articles and white papers. But the governor this week praised House lawmakers who worked closely with him and his staff to craft the proposal.

“They’ve talked with our office and we’ve tried to work with them and have worked with them,” said Deal, adding: “I personally believe it’s a good piece of legislation. My staff has had a great deal of input.”


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