ATLANTA – Georgia’s education chief sought to calm concerns Wednesday over ending the short-lived chief turnaround office, assuring state lawmakers that other Department of Education officials will pick up the slack to help bolster the state’s struggling public schools.
State lawmakers passed a bill creating the chief turnaround office in 2017 under then-Gov. Nathan Deal. Headed up by Savannah native Eric Thomas, the office was tasked with improving the state’s worst-performing schools with help from “turnaround coaches” and outside specialists.
Thomas, who has actively been looking for jobs outside Georgia, resigned as chief turnaround officer last Friday amid an internal audit and reports of workplace discrimination. He disputed the allegations, claiming instead he was ousted for political reasons after clashes with state School Superintendent Richard Woods’ office.
Now, the chief turnaround office will be folded into a different arm of the education department run by Stephanie Johnson, the deputy superintendent for school improvement. Woods said the change should not cause any hiccups for 13 low-performing schools the office was supporting.
“I don’t foresee we will miss anything at all with that,” Woods said. “In fact, I think we will probably be stronger.”
But several lawmakers seemed unconvinced Wednesday at a budget hearing for the education department. They complained the turnaround office’s short tenure makes the state’s focus on low-performing schools seem fickle and risks letting disadvantaged students slip through bureaucratic cracks.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars trying to provide for struggling schools,” said Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson. “It’s just not happening, especially in the rural areas. We’re still not getting adequate results.”
Funding for the chief turnaround office was among a handful of budget cuts for the department meant to comply with Gov. Brian Kemp’s spending reduction orders. Lawmakers also highlighted funding cuts to specialized state schools for physically and developmentally disabled students, as well as state-run regional education programs.
“I have a pretty grave concern about the depth of these cuts,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn. “I just fear that it may be harmful and backward and regressive from where we’ve tried to go over the last several years.”
The cuts would not affect teacher salaries or core educational programs for students, funding for which would actually increase by about $114 million this fiscal year if lawmakers pass the budget as is. Kemp’s budget also includes about $357 million in additional funding for a $2,000 teacher pay raise, fulfilling a campaign promise.