This is the digest form of the four-hour state Board of Education hearing today on whether or not to suspend the DeKalb Board of Education. If want all the details, scan my live blog from the hearing.
The DeKalb board is fighting for its survival after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the district on probation last month because of board mismanagement, meddling, nepotism and fiscal failings. The General Assembly passed a law in 2011 that gave the governor the legal power to remove errant school boards who jeopardize their district’s accreditation.
After the hearing during which every DeKalb board member testified, the state Board of Education delayed voting on recommending that the governor oust the fractious school board, instead approving a consent agreement and giving DeKalb time to show improvement.
But not as much time as the school board wanted.
It was clear some state board members were exasperated with the ongoing problems in DeKalb and doubtful that the nine DeKalb school board members had the ability to transcend their differences. But it was also clear that some state board members were reluctant to dissolve a local school board that includes three newly elected members who only took office 10 days ago.
At the start of the marathon hearing, lawyers for both the state Department of Education and the DeKalb school board urged the state board to sanction a consent agreement that would have allowed the board three months to initiate reforms recommended by SACS.
But the state board declined to grant DeKalb three months to right its ship. Instead, the state board approved a consent decree that gives DeKalb 30 days to register some progress rather than the April date sought by the county.
After approving the consent agreement, the state board immediately told the DeKalb board to return on Feb. 21 to report on its progress at which time the state board could choose to vote on suspension.
This gives DeKalb only 30 days to register some significant progress.
“If they’ve done a rock star job, we can give them to June,” said state board member Mike Royal. “Does that mean we have to vote to remove or not to remove in our recommendation to the governor. No, but April kicks this can too far down the road. This is a critical situation that is upon us now. It is not new and there are 98,000 children in DeKalb County depending on us now.”
However, the DeKalb board attorney maintained that 30 days is insufficient to produce change. ”We believe a two month or a two-and-a-half month process is fairer,” said DeKalb attorney Rocco Testani.
He asked state board members to consider what nine board members could realistically accomplish in 30 days.
Testani was assisted in making his case by the DOE attorney Jennifer Hackemeyer who warned that DeKalb citizens may be confused if the state board signs a consent order giving the DeKalb board three months to make progress but then turns around and brings them back in 30 days and vote on their fates.
Hackemeyer reminded the state board about what they were facing with Sumter County. (The Sumter board filed a civil lawsuit in November against the State Board of Education and Gov. Nathan Deal.)
In defending his board, DeKalb Chair Eugene Walker told the state, “We have had a number of rumors that confounded our ability to govern. People would rather listen to the rumors than look at the records. I admit at times we can be cantankerous but we have honest and decent people on that board. We don’t have people taking money.”
State board member Wanda Barrs raised thoughtful points on what actions will produce the best outcome for DeKalb. Is it ousting the entire board, including three newly elected members, in a month’s time? Or is it working with the board through better guidance and monitoring over three months?
Note that the Clayton school board was ousted and replaced by Gov. Sonny Perdue, but the problems in the district persist, just with a new cast of characters.
In addition, there may be a legal question to whether the state can oust brand new board members who were not in office when SACS placed the system on probation.
There were several comments today at the hearing about the absence of DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, who had a family medical emergency. But it was not just her physical absence that was commented upon; state board member Wanda Barrs pressed DeKalb school board member Pam Speaks on whether Atkinson had the “capacity” to help the board.
“I don’t think it is the superintendent’s role to fix our responsibilities as a board,” responded Speaks. “I do think the superintendent has the capacity to work in conjunction, in collaboration, with the present Board of Education to allow the board to carry out their role and responsibilities as well as for her to carry out her roles and responsibilities.”
A refrain by many DeKalb board members was that they did not knowingly violate any policies. Several expressed puzzlement over some of the SACS criticisms. All the veteran board members said that they did undergo the required board training, and believed their actions fell within the confines of their board duties and responsibilities.
That line of defense — we didn’t know what we were doing was wrong — did not go over well with some state board members.
State board member Brian K. Burdette wants a list of the training that every DeKalb school board member has undertaken, telling them: “Everyone says they had the training. If they had it, it didn’t work. If it had, we wouldn’t be here. As a board member, you are supposed to know what you can and cannot do. If you don’t know, it is up to you to find out and police yourselves. It is incumbent on you all. It is not incumbent on SACS. It isn’t incumbent on this board. It is incumbent on you to fix it. ”
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog