The state Board of Education will hold a hearing Thursday on the fate of the fractious DeKalb school board, which was the subject of a devastating critique by the district’s accreditation agency.
Last month, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accused DeKalb officials of engaging in bickering and nepotism while letting district finances collapse. SACS placed the district on probation. The probation could lead to full loss of accreditation if the many problems found by SACS in its six-month review are not corrected in one year.
But the school board may suffer more immediate repercussions from the probationary status.
Under a new state law, the state Board of Education can recommend that the governor suspend members of the DeKalb school board and appoint temporary replacements. The state board will hold its hearing at 1 p.m. in the Twin Towers in downtown Atlanta.
Historically, DeKalb has suffered from cronyism, nepotism and racial and economic divides. The current reality of fewer resources has exacerbated those divides, and some board members have exploited them to their own political advantage. The “friends and family” policy — in place long before the current administration came to power — has led to questionable hires and inflated titles.
The constant political gaming has created deep suspicions among the DeKalb parents who pay attention to the board. Those parents, well informed, data savvy and vocal, now question everything the board does or says. The parents do not trust the people running their schools. And the people running the schools have come to view those parents as adversaries rather than partners.
The SACS report outlines clear instances of school board meddling and poor governance. Anyone reading the report would believe that this is a system in decline rather than on the rise even though DeKalb can point to a few positive trends in its academic performance.
While the DeKalb school board doesn’t serve the citizens well, voters keep electing people who are not qualified to run the state’s third-largest district.
That said, I question the SACS stance, also reiterated in its reports on other districts, that school boards should speak with a united voice on most issues. Board members have a right to question and a right to disagree.
Board decisions don’t have to be unanimous. However, those decisions, no matter the vote tallies, ought to be well reasoned and based on what’s best for the entire system. That is where DeKalb falls short.
Serving on a school board requires that elected officials sometimes put aside the desires of their constituents, the people who live on their street and belong to their church, for the betterment of the system as a whole. That challenge is more pronounced in DeKalb where the county divides into north and south factions, each contending the other earns favored treatment and more resources.
Here are some of the most damning passages from the SACS report:
Evidence supported a finding that board members intimidate staff and attempt to direct the activities of staff members. There is a general feeling that many of the board members feel that principals within their respective voting districts are “their” principals, and they treat them as such. In addition to the previously cited example, one instance includes an employee leaving work crying and distraught after an explosive interaction with a board member
Interviews revealed that there have been instances where promotions have been given to individuals who are highly favored by a board member and not on the basis of merit or qualification. Instances have been cited where Human Resource policies and procedures, including salaries, have been implemented in an inconsistent manner leading to distrust and suspicion across the school system. Various forms of evidence confirmed that there is Board interference in hiring considerations.
One example includes an email dated August 24, 2012, from the board chair to the Superintendent containing the subject line: Candidate for TAPP Program. The email from the board chair to the Superintendent read in part, “This is the individual I referred to the program that I asked you about, with his strong background and personal demeanor I feel that he would be a great candidate to work with our kids in our schools while filling one of our critical needs areas. Please know that I have met this young man and he is the brother of one of our Board… I would appreciate any assistance that you could provide.” This email confirms and supports the common belief of many stakeholders that there exists a problem with nepotism and preferential treatment in the hiring practices of the DeKalb County School District.
Based on evidence from numerous interviews, several board members continue to make harassing calls and visits to schools. There was frequent mention of board members who make special requests of district office staff, bus drivers and teachers, making threats to fire them if they do not comply with their individual requests. It was reported that individual board members have made requests to place people in certain positions, hire who they insist should be hired or provide allowances for certain parents.
These interviewees used terms like fear, harassment, and intimidation to describe the behaviors of board members. In one interview, the individual stated that one board member threatened a teacher with getting him/her fired, quoting the board member as saying, “You don’t know who I am.” Those interviewed consistently expressed that board members have created a level of animosity, and that both teachers and principals operate in fear.
Interviewees described a feeling of hopelessness across the district that it is useless to bring issues to the Board and expect fairness and professionalism, when they witness behavior from board members who routinely exhibit unprofessionalism and unethical behavior.
Here is the AJC story on the SACS report:
Students in DeKalb County have to study using worn textbooks held together by glue. Meanwhile, school employees are getting promotions they haven’t earned because of who they know. Such allegations — contained in a damning report by a school accrediting agency — illustrate the dire state of DeKalb school finances coupled with the “extreme dysfunction” of the culture that created the situation.
In the 20-page document, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools threatened to strip the system’s accreditation a year from now, likely damaging the local economy as well as students. “The most important thing to me is the ineffectiveness of the board to govern the system, ” said Mark Elgart, president and chief executive of SACS’ Alpharetta-based parent company, AdvancED.
Should the district lose accreditation, it would be the first time that’s happened in metro Atlanta since Clayton County in 2008. Clayton was the first system to suffer such a severe sanction from SACS since Duval County, Fla., more than 40 years ago. It was a major blow for Clayton, with 3,200 students leaving the district, and surely exacerbated the effects of the economic recession. As many as 20,000 people moved out of the county, the unemployment rate rose and housing values plummeted.
Gov. Nathan Deal has authority under a new state law to remove the DeKalb school board if that’s what the state board recommends. The state board has 30 days from Monday’s release of the report to schedule a hearing on the matter. (That hearing is Thursday.)
The DeKalb system’s budget drew scrutiny in the SACS report. The system routinely has under-budgeted for expenses such as utilities and legal work over the past several years, contributing to its current deficit. (State education officials recently confirmed a $14.5 million deficit at the June close of the fiscal year.)
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog