When I read coverage of the recent Atlanta Board of Education meeting, I had to laugh to keep from crying.

The Board members were talking about a very serious topic — how to improve struggling schools. For Atlanta, this is not a theoretical conversation.

The city has high schools where at least 93 percent of students have failed geometry for each of the last five years. The city has elementary schools where 90 percent of students have not been able to read or write on grade level, again, for each of the last five years.

So the Board members’ discussion was highly appropriate, highly pertinent, highly important. The discussion was also highly protracted.

As the coverage noted, the Board members started a similar debate last school year, but the proposal under consideration then “drew opposition,” which led enough members of the Board to waffle, punt, and wait for another school year — another school year for nine in 10 students to not learn geometry or how to read and write on grade level — to continue their conversation.

That was the context for this recent Board meeting — at long last, our Board members, civic leaders who raised their hands and asked us to elect them to the posts they now hold, were going to tackle this critical subject in education.

And yet.

Even after all that time, the Board spent this meeting hemming and hawing. Some of the Board members spent time wordsmithing the proposed text, looking for language that would be least likely to hurt anyone’s feelings. The Board chair boldly staked out the “middle ground.” And by the end of the meeting, the Board agreed to delay the release of the plan another month, until January.

In (Matthew 20:26), where it says “the greatest among shall be your servant,” it’s not referring to APS Board members.

Look, I get it. Leadership is hard. Fighting for what is right is hard. Taking on institutions that have not changed in many years is hard. But it’s necessary, it’s so necessary because equity is not something that magically appears or is passively handed over. Equity is earned, and the more inequitable the situation, the more you need to do to undo it.

When I was the Third Vice President of the Georgia NAACP and I was leading rallies at the state capitol, I was not received with open arms and an immediate agreement to my terms.

When I became the first African American pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in southwest Atlanta, the moment was not without discomfort.

That’s how leadership works. That’s how change happens.

So as the Board of Education continues its deliberations, I pray they find courage, and I pray they find perspective. I pray they remember that while adults may cast the votes that won them their election, they ultimately serve students.

Perhaps such remembrance will help the Board members spend less time reviewing and re-reviewing language to make sure no adults are offended. At this meeting in question, for example, Board members were concerned that some turns of phrase could be seen as “punitive.”

What could be more punitive than attending a school where 90 percent of students can’t read or write on grade level?

To the members of the Board, I say that hard work is hard. You need to do it anyway.

The Rev. Dr. William Flippin Jr. is currently Assistant to the Bishop and Director of Evangelical Mission for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, ELCA. Prior to this role, he served as the first African-American pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church, the largest multi-racial Lutheran congregation in Atlanta. Pastor Flippin also serves as a member of the Lutheran World Federation Church Council and Co-Chair for Advocacy/Public Voice. He served on the Southeastern Synod Committee on Outreach and Renewal, 2013-19.

Rev. Dr. William Flippin, Jr.

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