IT WASN'T supposed to be this way. The race for Savannah/Chatham County School Board President was supposed to fly under the radar, and be settled quietly and without bloodshed.
The big question May 20 was supposed to be about the political future of Jack Kingston, and how he’d fare after leaving his cushy 22-year gig as Savannah congressman to mix it up in a crowded Republican primary for U.S. Senate.
Instead, it’s the five-way School Board President race which has sparked the fireworks. And squarely at the center of the show is David Simons, presumed front-runner, Republican lobbyist, long-time campaign strategist for other candidates, and military veteran.
Almost no actual educational issues have been debated. What has been debated is Simons’s attitude (he skipped some debates), his previous arrest record (a battery charge against a courthouse security guard 14 years ago), his children attending private school instead of public (true), and his apparent conflicts of interest (more on that in a moment).
Simons, for his part, and to the surprise of exactly zero people who know him, hasn’t shied away from any of the controversy.
Even though his job as consultant is largely behind-the-scenes, he’s never been a wallflower. He’s always seemed to enjoy playing a bit of a rogue.
Years ago I called him the “Karl Rove of Savannah politics,” back in the pre-Obama years when people still got worked up when Rove’s name was mentioned.
A friend of mine, more pointedly, caught Simons’s performance at the recent JEA forum, reported on in-depth this issue by Jessica Leigh Lebos. My friend said Simons came across like a “Saturday Night Live version of Donald Rumsfeld.”
More disturbing has been the pair of ethics complaints filed against him.
One complaint is that up until only a few weeks ago he actively sought to lobby the school system and Superintendent Thomas Lockamy on behalf of a client who is a contractor on the Hesse School project.
Another complaint apparently involves Simons lobbying the County Commission on behalf of the developer of a potential new Hutchinson Island hotel.
Simons is also being sued by a local minority contractor for allegedly slandering her to some members of the school board.
Several of Simons’s contributors are companies with past or current construction contracts with the public school system.
Most people would say that at the very minimum, if you want to run for School Board President you should take a hiatus from lobbying for tax dollars to go to private companies. But a cynic might say Simons is only streamlining a local tradition.
City Alderwoman Estella Shabazz made it a central part of her bid for office to push for more local minority and women contractors. She’s now also part of a private consortium accepting millions of dollars to oversee compliance for.... minority and women contractors.
(Her husband, Yusuf Shabazz, is a Chatham County Commissioner for the same district and was a finalist for the $77K job as Compliance Officer for.... minority and women contractors.)
Former County Commissioner Patrick Shay has seen his architectural firm garner tens of millions of dollars in contracts from the public schools and local government since he left office. Shay’s firm was awarded the contract for the new Cultural Arts Center—despite its bid being 45 percent higher than the low bid!
(His wife Janice was campaign manager for Mayor Edna Jackson and former chair of the Chatham County Democratic Party.)
City Alderman John Hall’s wife Connie serves on the School Board in the same district. Earlier this year he supported salary raises for City Council, saying “We knew getting elected, we would have to make some sacrifices, but none of us intended to lose as much money as we have been doing.”
As far as I know, no one is filing ethics complaints about any of those people. But it doesn’t take Karl Rove to see at least the first glimmerings of the appearance of impropriety, and not to mention nepotism.
Indeed, more than one local pundit jokes that since Simons’s spouse doesn’t hold office, he’s an amateur by local standards.
While we’re talking about ethics and money, the inarguable fact is that the Savannah/Chatham County Public Schools are driven to an extraordinary degree by construction projects.
This is one of the worst-performing school districts in one of the worst-performing states in the union. But one could never say it’s this way because of a lack of funding.
Local public schools are the main generator of property taxes as well as the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars sales taxes in the form of ESPLOST. Tales of extravagant bureaucratic waste within the walls of Board of Education HQ at 208 Bull Street are a decades-old part of local folklore.
The product inside our schools may not always be much to write home about. But if it’s shiny brand-new buildings you want, Chatham County will give ‘em to you. And pay contractors handsomely to do the work.
ESPLOST will collect about $350 million for school construction projects over the next few years. People clearly find that much money worth fighting over, suing other people over, and perhaps worth skirting the limits of ethical behavior.
Dave Simons is no one’s idea of a poster child for feel-good inclusiveness. He is running openly on the platform that he isn’t necessarily a friend of public schools, but simply a better choice to manage that huge chunk of change.
While Simons is the last person on earth I’d imagine actually saying the phrase, “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game,” that might work as his campaign motto.
If you want to affect real change in the schools, by all means start by voting for the person you think has the school system’s needs closest to their heart—because they’re not doing it for the salary ($16,000 a year).
But our problems go deeper than whoever wins May 20, or in the potential runoff July 22.
It runs all the way to your local school board representative—none of whom face opposition this year.
It runs all the way to the high taxes that fund those construction projects everyone is fighting over—taxes which voters have endorsed time after time.
And it runs all the way to the fact that local politicians are largely desensitized to accountability because they are so rarely called out by the voters.