Political Notes – Austin’s running in a race not yet scheduled

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State Rep. Rick Austin (R-Demorest) isn’t wasting any time – he’s already planning to run for the state Senate seat that Sen. Jim Butterworth (R-Cornelia) relinquishes on Oct. 2 when he becomes adjutant general of the Georgia National Guard.

“The issues are too important and the challenges too great to have a novice in the Senate representing us,” said Austin, who was first elected to the Georgia House in 2008.

Butterworth, whose appointment as National Guard commander was announced Tuesday, will formally resign from the Senate on Oct. 2.  Austin said he will resign from the House that same day to qualify for the special election that will be called to elect a replacement for Butterworth.

Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to call that election for Nov. 8 so that it will coincide with municipal elections already being held that day in numerous Georgia cities.

Of course, Austin’s resignation from the House to run for the Senate means that another special election will be needed to fill his vacated House seat.

Austin, who was raised and still lives in Habersham County, is a biology professor at Piedmont College in Demorest.

Can’t anybody fill this job?

Vance Smith’s forced resignation as Department of Transportation commissioner once again shines the media spotlight on a state agency that has been beat up and whipsawed for years by competing political interests.

Smith, a longtime member of the Georgia House before being named DOT commissioner in 2009, agreed Wednesday to resign as of Dec. 31, although deputy commissioner Keith Golden has already stepped in as the interim commissioner.

Golden is now the fifth person since 2007 to be in charge of running DOT, which has a budget of about $2 billion a year to build and maintain the state’s transportation infrastructure.

State Transportation Board member Sam Wellborn of Columbus made these observations about Smith’s tenure to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer:

Wellborn said there was no vote taken on Smith at the Department of Transportation board’s meeting Wednesday, but it became clear that a majority of the board was no longer satisfied with Smith’s performance. Smith could not be reached for comment, but Wellborn confirmed that part of the problem was Smith’s reticence in filling some key positions quickly.

“I made it very clear that I was not supportive of him leaving, but the clear majority of the board was in favor of it,” Wellborn said. “I don’t know why he didn’t act quicker on the two or three occasions. But he didn’t, and it didn’t sit well with a few of the board members.”

Smith’s legacy, Wellborn said, should be the job he did to restore the department’s morale and credibility following the tenure of Smith’s predecessor, Gena Evans, whom the board fired in February 2009. During her term, Evans hid a romantic relationship with former DOT board chairman Mike Evans, whom she would later marry.

“His legacy, as far as I’m concerned, will be the wonderful job that he did when he came in and took an unbelievably bad situation — the department was a total mess when he came in, from a morale standpoint — and very quickly turned it around,” Wellborn said.

Wellborn is the longest-serving member on the DOT board, finishing his fourth five-year term this year, and he intends to seek another term, he said. In those 20 years, he has seen six commissioners.

“I’ve been thorough six commissioners, so it’s not like this doesn’t happen with some amount of frequency,” Wellborn said. “So now we’ll be looking for my seventh.”

Hall speaks

It seems that Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of the Atlanta public school system, finally found a reporter who would write about Hall and the massive test cheating scandal that prompted her early retirement without asking any tough questions.

Hall sat down with Kim Severson of the New York Times and talked to a reporter who produced an article so sympathetic to the former superintendent that it almost reads like a press release.  The article also reveals that Hall is still unable or unwilling to admit just how widespread was the cheating that took place during her administration.

From the Times article:

“I will survive this,” said Dr. Hall, 65, in her first public interview since a scathing 800-page report by state investigators outlined a pervasive pattern of cheating at 44 schools and involving 178 educators.

“I feel badly for myself, but I feel just as badly for all the people in this district who are working hard,” she said. “Now everything they read and hear is negative. That is taking a tremendous toll on me.”

From 1999 to June, Dr. Hall was the forceful, erudite and data-driven superintendent of a once-failing urban school district that became a model of improvement.

During her reign, scholarship money delivered to Atlanta students jumped to $129 million from $9 million. Graduation rates, while still not stellar, rose to 66 percent, from 39 percent. Seventy-seven schools were either built or renovated, at a cost of about $1 billion.

Dr. Hall maintains that she never knowingly allowed cheating and does not condone it, but acknowledges that people under her did.

Still, the scope of the report — which she and others argue was overreaching and contained inaccuracies — shocks her.

“I can’t accept that there is a culture of cheating,” she said. “What these 178 are accused of is horrific, but we have over 3,000 teachers.”

© 2011 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: Atlanta public schools , Beverly Hall , cheating scandal , DOT , georgia national guard , Jim Butterworth , Rick Austin , Sam Wellborn , Vance Smith