DeKalb voters: Pick with care as you can’t predict the bonkers factor

I wanted to talk a bit more about the DeKalb school board candidates panel that I moderated Tuesday night. (I will post a link as the event was recorded and will be online.)

Eleven of the 12 candidates participated; one via Skype from out of the country. The event at Westwood College was packed and the audience was attentive.

Overall, I found the candidates informed and engaged, but here’s the problem. I spent 12 years as an editorial writer, which included interviewing hundreds of candidates running for public office, from U.S. president to local school board.

I realized early on that you cannot predict the bonkers factor. My colleagues and I would leave an interview impressed as heck with candidates. The candidates would have long and honorable histories in their communities. They would be bright, personable and, by any measure, seemingly fit for public office.

And they would get elected and lose all perspective.

They would fight with their colleagues, call me with whispered conversations about conspiracies against them, yell at constituents who brought them complaints. I have seen this occur with women and men, with young candidates just starting out in their careers and with older, successful people who have run their own businesses for decades.

You often cannot predict in advance how candidates will gel with their colleagues, how they will use their newly won powers and influence, or how they will react to the  public pressure, which is unlike anything most of them have ever experienced. They are not accustomed to the media attention, the angry citizens lining up at the microphone at meetings to denounce them, the email accusations that they have no more backbone than a chocolate éclair. (As Theodore Roosevelt once said about William McKinley.)

I suggest that DeKalb citizens attend the remaining candidate forums, one of which is July 19 at Arabia Mountain High School. I  also recommend that citizens read the candidates’ self-submitted bios. Most of them are posted on the eduKALB site. (A basic plea to all candidates: Hire a proofreader. I was surprised at the errors in some of the DeKalb school board candidate bios.)

But even after all of that, cast your vote with your fingers crossed that your choice for the school board will not derail once elected. DeKalb can’t afford too many more misses on its board, given the system’s precarious state and the need for real and sustained reform.

–from Maureen Downey for the AJC Get Schooled blog

65 comments Add your comment

Atlanta Mom

July 12th, 2012
9:08 am

The Bonker factor–too true

catlady

July 12th, 2012
9:17 am

While I love the name, Bonker Factor, I submit that it is the same sort of thing that drives many of our policepeople or jail workers—power!

I would never vote for a single candidate for school board who submits a bio with errors! Ever! Garbage person or ditchdigger, maybe, but not for school board!

Maureen Downey

July 12th, 2012
9:29 am

@catlady, I think it is also the sense that they are under siege. Candidates often run for office out of good intentions and then discover once elected that they are now targets, held accountable for many things outside of their constitutional charge. They get defensive. It becomes an “us against them” world.
What I don’t get is why so many elected officials want to continue in that pressure cooker. If I were a school board member and felt that the schools had not flourished under my tenure, I think I would call it a day. Yet, school board members in every district seem to want to hold onto their seats, no matter the stress.

Pride and Joy

July 12th, 2012
9:33 am

Maureen says ” Yet, school board members in every district seem to want to hold onto their seats, no matter the stress.
Right.
Just like Catlady said, Maureen, it’s the POWER they want.

Bill & Ed's Excellent Adventure

July 12th, 2012
9:36 am

@Maureen I’m all for giving someone new a try…I think we’ve all seen and heard enough from the current group.

Disgusted in Dekalb

July 12th, 2012
9:53 am

I know exactly what you are talking about, Maureen. I have read several pieces online submitted by Denise McGill, who is running for the Dekalb BOE in District 6. She seems extremely enthusiastic and fairly knowledgeable about the school system. But several things concern me. One is that she seems fairly thin-skinned when confronted by someone who disagrees with her. Well, I don’t deal well with confrontation either, but I have enough sense not to run for a position on a local school board. Another concern is that in her postings Ms. McGill often shows a lack of command of the written English language. Many will say that blog postings shouldn’t be held to such a high standard, but if one is posting as a declared candidate to lead a county school board, correct grammar and proper spelling should be minimal requirements.

This relates to your comments about errors in candidate bios—are you really surprised, Maureen? In Dekalb, where teachers, principals, and, yes, school board members often lack basic communication skills? Not only am I not surprised by errors in candidate bios (and these aren’t typos; they are errors), I have come to expect them. Given the choices voters have, it is probably unrealistic to hope that we will be able to elect representatives who have the knowledge, education, and temperament to run the school system well.

Disgusted in Dekalb

July 12th, 2012
9:57 am

I remember going to a Dekalb County Commission meeting where Vernon Jones spoke to Elaine Boyer as if she were a piece of gum on the bottom of his shoe. She responded with complete self control and grace. I was so impressed. That is the type of temperament we need for people in this type of position.

Pardon My Blog

July 12th, 2012
10:00 am

@disgusted – Well said and so true! What I want to know is how did some of these teachers even get their certification? Really sad.

@Maureen – any chance that the AJC will run an “Election Section” prior to the July 31 that will include this along with the other issues on the ballot?

Pardon My Blog

July 12th, 2012
10:09 am

and I would tell the editors to publish the bios exactly as submitted with no corrections

alm

July 12th, 2012
10:10 am

The headline says it all!

RCB

July 12th, 2012
10:15 am

The written AND verbal skills of some of these candidates is appalling.

RCB

July 12th, 2012
10:15 am

ARE appalling–sheesh

skipper

July 12th, 2012
10:38 am

Elephant in the room, Maureen; some of these folks, no matter their intentions, are as incompetant as a sack of rocks! This is a SCHOOL BOARD for goodness sake. Their should be certain criteria for a school board member (literacy being an important one) that perhaps other elected officials may not have to meet. One never gives up, but lets see where this board is a few years from now. Like it or not, this system will still be a cluster years from now. School board members who cannot read or write reasonably? And no, I’m not talking about accents, etc. I’m talking about semi (at best) literate folks!
Folks will raise cain at me, but lets see where this mess is in a few years…..still the grunge heap it is today.

William Casey

July 12th, 2012
10:44 am

Please, Skipper. “There” rather than “their.” If we are going to complain about the literacy of the candidates, we should get it right ourselves. (I’m weak on comma usage. LOL)

Maureen Downey

July 12th, 2012
10:45 am

@skipper, I think the problem transcends the local board candidates. The question at every level of government is whether elected citizens are capable of running government entities that have now grown into industrial complexes entailing hundreds of millions of dollar? I just wonder if the concept of electing everyday folk to run schools systems or cities makes sense today when government has become big business.
Some school boards today are operating the equivalent of Fortune 500 companies. Do average, albeit well-meaning and often very nice, people have the financial expertise, the management skills to do so?
Maureen

redweather

July 12th, 2012
10:51 am

Elected officials view the general public and the media with suspicion. Sometimes their suspicions are well founded, sometimes they are not. But just as there might be a “Bonkers Factor” when it comes to candidates for public office, there is also a “Bonkers Factor” when it comes to members of the general public and the media.

Dunwoody Mom

July 12th, 2012
10:53 am

Do average, albeit well-meaning and often very nice, people have the financial expertise, the management skills to do so?

No, it is painfully obvious that most on the current DCSD BOE have no experise in financial matters, nor do they want to educate themselves on such. The current crop of candidates are just status quo, imo.

Maureen Downey

July 12th, 2012
10:54 am

@redweather, I agree but the general public is not directing a school board budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, and a member of the media can be fired if the bonkers factor rises to the attention of management. (In my experience, newspaper editors take reader complaints of crazed reporters very seriously.)
Maureen

Baron DeKalb

July 12th, 2012
10:57 am

@skipper, if they are ALL incompetent as a “sack of rocks” — why don’t you run for the Board? You write off the school board as a failure now and forever. Well, put up or shut up. This ought to apply to tens of thousands of your fellow citizens who only complain — but do not run for office, do not contribute money to good candidates, do not show up at public meetings, do not even show up to vote. You usually get the government you deserve. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh. But we all know its true.

Proud Educator

July 12th, 2012
11:16 am

@Maureen: your recommendation about reading the bios is very true. It’s amazing what a few paragraphs say about a person. I hate to make snap judgements, however some candidates gave the impression of either “it’s all about me” or “I’m the crazy person who tells it like it is”, with no diplomacy. I’ve been an administrator for about 10 years, and in this short time period I’ve developed the skillset of reading people and motives quickly. I saw about two possible solid candidates…that’s about it!

Proud Educator

July 12th, 2012
11:20 am

@Maureen: the key to identifying the “bonkers phenomenon” is focusing on the people around the candidates. Many leaders make mistakes because of hidden agendas of their people.

Anonymous

July 12th, 2012
11:21 am

Let’s not forget that if there was a COMPETENT and HONEST administration and staff at DCSD then the focus of the Board, and the skills they would need, would be different.

Today they need to be a combination of forensic accountant, investigative reporter, and education policy guru to compensate for the lack of skill in DCSD.

I think ordinary folks could do a decent job if DCSD had qualified human resource personnel, finance personnel, MIS personnel, and so forth, and had more transparency about where the $$ goes. However, that’s not the world of DCSD…sigh!

Howard Finkelstein

July 12th, 2012
11:39 am

“DeKalb voters: pick with care.”

LOL…thats not gonna happen. Dekalb voters are not victims of themselves and have no one to blame but themselves.

catlady

July 12th, 2012
12:31 pm

Ms. Downey, there must be a good story behind your 10:54 post!

Dunwoody Mom

July 12th, 2012
1:40 pm

I think ordinary folks could do a decent job if DCSD had qualified human resource personnel, finance personnel,

One of the duties of a BOE member is to approve the budget. I would hope that, rather than blindly approving the budget, a BOE member would review and understand that budget.

Married with (School) Children

July 12th, 2012
1:48 pm

DPS had its job fair for displaced teachers this morning (July 12). I was told that it was poorly organized — all the displaced teachers and the principals (from DPS’s 150 schools) were in one big room, so it was very loud and difficult to hear one another.

Also, yesterday’s (July 11) “Called Meeting” of the DPS Board was supposed to resume today, but apparently it was cancelled. The Job Fair was right next door to the Board meeting room, so my guess is that the DPS Board cancelled their meeting once they realized that all the displaced teachers were going to be right next door….

Dunwoody Mom

July 12th, 2012
1:57 pm

What is DPS?

Married with (School) Children

July 12th, 2012
2:07 pm

“DPS” is me not eating lunch before posting! I should have typed DCS, for Dekalb County Schools, but went with DPS because I was thinking Dekalb “Public” Schools.

bu2

July 12th, 2012
2:13 pm

Perhaps that abuse is why many competent people don’t run for public office. You get the power mad and the incompetent. The arrogance of our elected officials in Washington (both parties) is astounding. These people make complete idiots of themselves (and I’m not even talking about the sexual scandals). The caliber of people running for the council seats in Atlanta in the last election was very disappointing. And I’m just talking about their resumes, not their personal attributes.

School boards, unfortunately, often get people who are interested in higher office and just see this as an easier first step.

Married with (School) Children

July 12th, 2012
2:13 pm

Also, 11 Alive has a short item posted about DCS’s new registration process for international schools:
http://www.11alive.com/news/article/248044/3/DeKalb-County-School-District-announces-new-International-student-registration-process

Check out the line about how “schools will provide interpretation services for all parents needing assistance”.

That is a blatant lie. DCS just fired all of its translators, so there is no one left in the district to provide interpretation services.

Dunwoody Mom

July 12th, 2012
2:26 pm

@Married – there are many organizations in the Atlanta area that provide translation services – many for minimal fees and some even via volunteer efforts. Perhaps this is how the district plans to handle this. Just a thought – I have no idea.

Old timer

July 12th, 2012
2:34 pm

I think some of the more skilled people know what they are getting into and know better that to run for public office. People who elect you turn on you if you do not do what they think is best. As an elected official, you must be able to see the big picture for all.
As a result, we get second choice cannidates running for office. And there is no accounting for the “bonkers” factor….

@Disgusted in DeKalb

July 12th, 2012
2:41 pm

Marshall Orson, District 2 candidate, is probably the most fluent writer of the entire roster of candidates. Read his resume – flawless in grammar and usage:
http://edukalb.org/controlleradmin/school-board-candidates/controllerdomainalias/bios/84-marshall-d-orson.html

Read Mr. Orson’s letter to the Board of Education from 2010:

1. Advocating keeping special programs and schools intact:

“In these difficult times, we also believe it is critical to save programs that provide a point of distinction for DCSS and which are instrumental in recruiting and retaining students. The High Achievers Magnet programs fit this role as does the Fernbank Science Center and its programs.”

2. Advocating closing neighborhood schools:

“Reluctantly, we must also urge the consolidation of more than four schools. ”

3. Wanting to raise taxes:

“Revenue enhancements may also be necessary, though we understand the challenges DCSS will still face in budget out-years.

3. Expressing the idea that DeKalb’s economic crisis is short term:

“Such enhancements should not be in place of making changes which are needed but should be used to bridge short-to intermediate revenue shortfalls.”

4. Balance the budget on the backs of teachers with increased class sizes (the only recourse left after raising taxes and closing a few neighborhood schools):

“We certainly do not wish to adversely affect the lives of many of DCSS’ tireless employees but economic realities dictate a change in our economic structure.”

Looking at Mr. Orson’s exceptionally well written Open Letter to the DeKalb Board of Education, it is easy to believe in 2010 that he had a firm grasp on the economic and educational needs of DeKalb County Schools. But he did NOT understand the budget crisis at all. His point of view was the same as Eugene Walker and many of the other BOE members who brought us to this financial low point. Close a few schools and raise taxes. Keep everything intact. Increase class sizes to accommodate the budget. If we just wait a while, this budget crunch will pass over.

Having so little understanding of the economic fundamentals and educational inequities of DeKalb makes Mr. Orson a poor prospect for a BOE member – IMHO.

Written fluency does not guarantee financial acumen or economic prescience.

Here is a link to his letter:
http://dekalbschoolwatch.blogspot.com/2010/03/letter-from-fernbank-elementary-school.html

Give me Ms. McGill any day. At least she deals in the real world that is DeKalb.

bu2

July 12th, 2012
2:48 pm

Actually the bonkers factor is there. Just that they are on their best behavior when campaigning so its hard to pick up on. But sometimes it slips out. There were a couple incidents during the Democratic primaries where it became obvious Bill Clinton had a temper and was a compulsive liar. So his behavior during the Monica bit wasn’t a shock. But you may have missed it because it wasn’t always on display.

But in addition to their existing bonkers factor, power does corrupt. Even at work. I’ve seen people who get promotions let it go to their head and become jerks. Its worse in state capitols and DC.

bu2

July 12th, 2012
2:57 pm

@disgusted
Ms. McGill is running for the seat being vacated by Tom Bowen, seat 6 against 3 other candidates.

Mr. Orson is running for district 2 against the incumbent Don McChesney.

And in fairness, I don’t think anyone thought home prices would continue to decline so dramatically. Atlanta has done just about the worst of any market in the country. And Dekalb, in part due to its schools, is just about the worst of the Atlanta area.

@bu

July 12th, 2012
3:20 pm

Most economists said that housing would not come back for 7 to 10 years, and Atlanta was heavily dependent on the housing industry. I believe the Fernbank area has been buffered by Emory and CDC to some degree. Perhaps this explains Mr. Orson’s viewpoint. But his idea of balancing the budget on the backs of teachers in the short term was just wrong for students IMO. That does more to destroy a school system and property values than almost anything I can think of.

Married with (School) Children

July 12th, 2012
3:26 pm

@Dunwoody Mom — My understanding is that there are federal and state confidentiality laws that make it difficult (possibly illegal) to use volunteer interpreters.

I also doubt that DCS has a plan, other than “wishful thinking”. If DCS actually had a plan, then someone in the central office would be able to tell the rest of the district what that plan was!

Pre-planning (for teachers) begins on August 6 (three weeks away) while children arrive for the first day of school on August 13 (four weeks away).

Try this: call up any DCS school, ask to speak to the Principal, and ask him or her how they will be providing interpretive services now — none of them can answer because none of them know! Then ask the Principal when the registration day for new students will be — they probably will not be able to tell you that either because the registration day has not yet been set (as far as I know). Finally, ask the Principal if he or she actually knows the exact number of teachers he or she will have staffing their school.

Next, call any random Clayton County school and ask them the same three questions.

DCS has become a cluster…., far worse than Clayton County ever was.

Dunwoody Mom

July 12th, 2012
3:29 pm

@Married…I’d like to see reference to those laws if you have them. I can’t imagine there is anything on school registration forms that would cause any type of privacy issues as parent volunteers actually run and staff registration – at least they do at my children’s schools.

Tired of the Status Quo

July 12th, 2012
3:39 pm

“As a Board of Education member, Dr. Speaks continues to serve the community. However, her focus has shifted from assisting with the day-to-day operations of the school district to that of focusing on school board policy.”

This comes directly from the bio. Perhaps this her way of abdicating the responsibilities of handling issues in the school which is located right down the street. How can she be expected to take care of a Super district when she can even help the one school in her own community from falling to pieces.

bu2

July 12th, 2012
3:47 pm

@@
There’s a difference between a long recovery and a continued decline. I don’t think any of those experts thought we would be dropping another 10% this year. Noone was predicting we would go back to 1990 home price levels, just that it would take a long time to get back to 2007.

It was obvious to me that Atlanta was due for a crash when we moved here in 2008, but almost noone else saw it. Certainly the developers didn’t. I’m not going to hold a candidate responsible for predicting the exact changes in the housing market when real estate professionals can’t.

Married with (School) Children

July 12th, 2012
3:58 pm

@Dunwoody Mom – This is not my area of expertise, but I think one issue is FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA requires that a parent first give their consent before a school system may disclose a child’s personally identifiable information.

Using a volunteer translator requires disclosing the child’s information to someone outside the school system (the translator). When a DCS translator is used, the child’s personal information stays inside the school system, so there is no disclosure requirement.

Again, this is not my area of expertise.

@bu

July 12th, 2012
4:06 pm

But balancing the budget on the backs of the students in the regular education schools is never a wise move for the majority of our students. This was in essence what Orson proposed when he took everything else off the table. I hope voters in District 2 read this letter carefully and understand what a disaster his ideas were for balancing the budget. The BOE has paralled his ideas almost to the T. Look where that has gotten us.

Bill & Ed's Excellent Adventure

July 12th, 2012
4:23 pm

@Disgusted In 2010, did anyone in Dekalb have an idea of how deep a hole the DCSS budget was really in? Especially when Tyson and Bowen told us all how “robust” the system was financially? Orson is by far the most qualified challenger to an incumbent this year.

Dunwoody Mom

July 12th, 2012
4:28 pm

Marshall Orson’s focus is on Fernbank ES & FSC and he does not care anything about the rest of DCSD. His past words and actions point to that fact. He is there to protect Fernbank’s interests, period.the.end. He would be as destructive a BOE member as SCW and his friend, Eugene Walker.

another comment

July 12th, 2012
4:39 pm

I still don’t get the mandate that we provide translaters. The parents need to learn English, just like my Grandparents did with my mother and her siblings started Elementary School. The start of school was the trigger that earlier generations used to assimulate and learn English. My mother remembers vividly when her family started speaking English. When she started school. Her mother declared that they were in America, they would speak English. That was that. My mother speaks without an accent as do all of her siblings.

The Deal

July 12th, 2012
4:45 pm

As a Jester/McChesney/Speaks fan, I don’t see the election resulting in anything but more of the same, just different players. We need someone (not sure who has the authority) to come in and bulldoze the entire system, board, superintendent, everyone. First focus is on building individual schools that are fully functioning with competent principals and teachers. Get those schools the resources they need to teach students every day. Then determine what resources could reasonably be shared or administered as a group. That’s the start of a “central office”. Cap the pay of central office personnel to the highest pay in any individual school. End our relationship with SACS, who has provided zero oversight or assistance in this years-long disaster. I guarantee that the people who run our schools could build an org chart for their individual schools that would have our students learning every day and our teachers teaching everyday with little interference and meddling by overpaid, unqualified administrators in the palace.

@Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

July 12th, 2012
7:22 pm

“….did anyone in Dekalb have an idea of how deep a hole the DCSS budget was really in?”

Is that your defense of Marshall Orson’s and the Fernbank Elementary School Council’s Open Letter to the Board of Education in 2010 urging them to balance the budget on the backs of the students and raise taxes?

Look at this AJC article dated March 18, 2010:
“DeKalb schools deficit nears $115 million; targeted school list released”

“….”As DeKalb County school district learned its projected deficit had soared to nearly $115 million, budget committee members weighed in Thursday on possible tax hikes and program cuts and agreed on sweeping staff cuts….
….Those who said they do not want to raise taxes are McChesney, board chairman Tom Bowen and members H. Paul Womack and Pamela Speaks. Board members Eugene Walker, Zepora Roberts, Sarah Copelin-Wood and Jim Redovian said they are looking at raising the millage rate by amounts varying between half a mill and 2 mills. Board member Jay Cunningham said he is undecided.”

Mr. Orson’s thinking had much in common with Eugene Walker, Sarah Copelin-Wood, and Zepora Roberts. In fact in the November, 2010 school board elections, the Fernbank community supported Eugene Walker rather than his competitor Ella Smith. The Fernbank community voted heavily for Eugene Walker.

Mr. Orson’s letter to the BOE proposing tax hikes and leaving special programs intact was dated March 30, 2010 so yes – he did have knowledge of the deep hole DeKalb Schools was in.

Married with (School) Children

July 12th, 2012
7:48 pm

@another comment (4:39 pm): Actually, some DCS schools are doing an amazing job teaching English to children who come from households that speak other languages.

My understanding is that you can actually see some great results in the individual-school CRC scores (just released this week, per Maureen’s “See how your school fared on CRCT this year” post). There are DCS schools serving communities with high percentages of non-English speaking households that have *higher* CRC reading scores than other DCS schools that only serve English-speaking households.

The translators are needed so that the teachers to communicate with the parents.

Anyway, I hope this post makes sense.

Married with (School) Children

July 12th, 2012
8:19 pm

When DCS schools closed for the summer, classrooms were emptied – desks & chairs were stacked out in the hallways, while all the valuable stuff (computers, smartboards, etc.) were put into in secured areas.

That was perfectly normal – having the rooms emptied out allows maintenance crews to paint the rooms, polish the floors, etc. Once that work is done, the desks and chairs are moved back into the classrooms and all the computer equipment gets reconnected.

Today, there was a very troubling rumor going around the Job Fair: at many (all?) schools, the computers and/or smartboards remain stored. Nobody has even attempted to coordinate getting it all reconnected!

I do not know if this is actually true, nor do I know how many schools are actually in this situation. However, it would make a good word problem for a math class: there are 150 schools needing their computer networks setup. With only three weeks remaining before teachers return to school, how many schools does your remaining technician have to configure each day?

Name One

July 12th, 2012
10:05 pm

Remember that DeKalb voters elected Gene Walker into office (see below). And his fellow BOE members voted him Chairperson. Don’t see much changing.

Parole board member on trial for sexual harassment
http://www.accessnorthga.com/detail.php?n=150517

State paid $190,000 to settle earlier sex harassment suit
http://www.accessnorthga.com/detail.php?n=165732

Suit accuses parole board member of sexual harassment
A former secretary claims in a lawsuit that Pardons and Paroles Board member Gene Walker sexually harassed her and eventually had her moved to another job.
http://www.accessnorthga.com/detail.php?n=197712