I am convinced that DeKalb voters can save their schools but they have to start by electing a strong school board that doesn’t say it’s all about the children at the same time it’s protecting the jobs of cronies, hiring relatives and clinging to an outdated vision of the county.
(For a good story on what is happening in the county, please check out the news story that just went up on AJC.com on the problems with the DeKalb board and the SACs situation.)
I just got back from an eduKalb school board candidate forum at DeKalb Medical Center and heard several impressive candidates. The League of Women Voters of DeKalb County, Leadership DeKalb, Junior League of DeKalb and the Champion and Free Press co-sponsored the forum. Political commentator Bill Crane served as moderator.
The first spontaneous applause went to District 7 candidate Donna Edler, a CPA, when she said, speaking of the system’s new central office complex, “As long as our children have substandard accommodations, our administrators shouldn’t have first-class accommodations.”
The second burst of applause went was won by District 7 candidate Richard Gathany, a lawyer, engineer and teacher, when he told the audience of about 50 people, “I want to make sure you know that I don’t have any relatives working for the system.”
All the candidates who showed up acknowledged that DeKalb, the state’s third largest school system with 98,000 students, has lost its way and has too many lackluster schools. A few of them seemed to put a lot of faith in the restorative powers of whoever is hired as the new superintendent, but I think it is unrealistic to believe that one person will change the system’s fortunes.
One exception was District 7 candidate Willie R. Mosley, Jr, who emphasized the need to involve more parents in the schools to change the tide.
I think the restoration of DeKalb, once considered one of the best systems in the state, will take a united effort.
First, the system has to offload its top-heavy central office. Candidates noted two damaging facts about their school district: It has more $100,000-plus administrator positions than any other system in Georgia and it spends less than 50 percent of its dollars on instruction.
As moderator Bill Crane noted, the similarly sized Cobb — with a similar budget — spends $100 million more on instruction than DeKalb and earns far better results. District 7 incumbent Zepora Roberts defended the spending, saying, “Our budget may be the same as Cobb’s but our needs and demographics are different.”
Let me talk for a minute about who wasn’t there tonight: Longtime District 3 school board member Sarah Copelin-Wood, who is apparently spurning most forums and her opponent Robert Lee Holt. (Holt actually dashed in late and then left before his race was presented, telling organizers his wife was in the hospital and he couldn’t stay.)
Neither of those candidates have responded to requests from the AJC to answer questions for a planned two-page spread on the DeKalb school board races. I am putting together these pages for DeKalb and six other counties, and I don’t get why candidates would turn down a chance to present their case to the public.
In fact, I went to the eduKalb forum to talk to Copelin-Wood and Holt as I didn’t want to only run the responses of the third candidate in that District 3 race, Corey Wilson, who took the podium solo tonight and did a good job.
This is the second forum where Wilson had the stage to himself; neither Copelin-Wood nor Holt showed up at a forum last week, either. I think this race belongs to Wilson for the simple fact that he shows up.
I have to wonder why Copelin-Wood and Holt are running; neither have apparently answered other candidate questionnaires. These are not interviews, just questionnaires where the candidates write their responses and they get published.
I think Copelin-Wood has a strategy of evading questions, which she may think will keep her out of trouble. And she may be counting on older voters, with whom she still holds sway, returning her to office. But her strategy of hiding out from public forums where she doesn’t control the crowd or the questions strikes me as a danger sign.
I am not sure about Holt’s tactics as no one seems to know what is driving him and he is running a stealth campaign. (It doesn’t mean he won’t get votes. I have known candidates who never sent out a mailer, attended a forum or kissed a single baby and they still got votes.)
The third burst of applause of the night went to Jesse “Jay” Cunningham, the incumbent in District 5, in response to his long list of school committees and councils on which he has served.
But his young opponent, 23-year-old Jacques Hall, also won applause with his passionate rhetoric about the race not being about him but about making real change.
Hall was honest in his answers, saying that he couldn’t comment on such issues as the SACs report since he had not read it. (The third candidate in that race, Kirk A. Nooks, a college administrator, could not make this forum.)
I think the District 5 race may come down to whether voters want tested experience or new passion. Cunningham is clearly in the community a lot, and I think that matters. Nooks has also impressed people at forums, so I am sorry that I didn’t get a chance tonight to hear him. This race could be interesting to watch.
In the District 9 panel, incumbent Gene Walker and challenger Ella Smith were both strong in their views. A Fulton teacher, Smith decried the loss of quality of DeKalb schools and said she would audit the system if elected to see where spending was inefficient.
When asked why DeKalb was no longer the “gold standard” in education and whether the county should look to the success of Fayette, Forsyth and Decatur City schools for guidance, Walker said he would not look anywhere in Georgia for inspiration but to Finland, generally recognized as the nation with the best schools.
And Finland’s secret, said Walker, was its focus on teachers and its support of them.
While there was not a full panel for District 1, candidate Nancy Jester - she is one of two women challenging incumbent Jim Redovian — spoke effectively about the need for a reform-minded superintendent from the outside and the stark rise in failing schools in the county based on AYP – from 14 percent to 44 since 2004.
With a background in finance, Jester wants Dekalb to become a model in turning around an urban school district by relying on bottoms-up funding formula that funds at the school level first. Her approach — let’s get past the platitudes and reprioritize how DeKalb spends money and where it spends it – is very fact based. She worked as an actuarial consultant and it’s reflected in her precision.
The second District 1 challenger is Merope “Bobbe” Gillis, who comes across as a concerned parent. Her comments deal more with the parent response to schools and school policy, including concerns over the 4-5 grade configuration now in Dunwoody. (That holds great interest to me as my town also has a 4-5 academy, and I think it is one transition too many for kids)
The size of DeKalb — Gillis likens it to a corporation — requires a revamping of the system, she said, calling for an audit with a focus on bringing money back to schools and looking at schools, staffing and supplies that are under utilized.
I have to hang it up now as there are dishes in the sink, laundry on the floor and a dog desperate to be walked. I have to find my husband and let him know about all these things.