After a hearing that lasted four hours, the state Board of Education delayed voting on recommending that the governor oust the fractious DeKalb school board, although some state board members were clearly exasperated with the situation.
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 trouble board three months to initiate reforms recommended by SACS.
However, the state board was reluctant to grant DeKalb its requested three months to right its ship. So, the state board instead gave them 30 days to report its progress rather than the April date sought by DeKalb.
The state board approved a consent agreement and then turned around immediately and 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 if unimpressed with what DeKalb has done.
This gives DeKalb only 30 days to make some significant progress.
“If they’ve done a rock star job, we can give them to June,” says 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.”
However, the DeKalb board attorney maintained that 30 days is not sufficient to bring change, saying, “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 think about what nine board members could realistically accomplish in 30 days. He was assisted in making his case by the DOE attorney Jennifer Hackemeyer who warned that the DeKalb public 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.
State board member Wanda Barrs raised thoughtful points on what will give 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 board was ousted and replaced by Gov. Sonny Perdue, but the problems in the district persist, just with a new cast of characters.
I covered the full hearing and posted live as it unfolded. For those can’t get enough, read on:
Original live blog that started at 1:
All seats taken at the state Board of Education hearing on suspending the DeKalb school board due to start in 15 minutes. About 50 people are in the 10th floor of the West Tower watching this online. Two hundred people are watching online from home.
Place is full of familiar DeKalb faces.
Word is that the state board will not act today as discussed in the earlier blog. The DeKalb board members are sitting in the front two rows.
DOE attorney Jennifer Hackemeyer is speaking, laying out the charges against the DeKalb board and ending with, At the conclusion of this hearing, whether it is today or sometime in the near future, we believe evidence shows that good cause exists for state board to move to send recommendation to governor to suspend all eligible members of the state board of education.”
Now, DeKalb school board attorney Rocco Testani is speaking. He is promising that the board members understand the seriousness of the issues at hand. “They understand and appreciate that time is of the essence and they seek the opportunity to improve as a board, and, in turn, improve the school system,” says Testani.
Testani wants the state board to approve a consent order giving DeKalb three months to change its ways. The order was overseen by both DeKalb and the DOE attorney, who supports the order.
While troubled by the SACS report and “what is happening in DeKalb County schools,” Hackemeyer says she believe “that the board members understand the seriousness of this matter and are committed to turning this situation around.”
She notes that the state board has given struggling school boards additional time. She also pointed out that the DeKalb board has three new members who only took office Jan. 7th.
Hackemeyer endorses the consent agreement, which gives DeKalb three months to show progress.
Now, DeKalb board members will each make a statement.
DeKalb Chair Eugene Walker is speaking. He is promising measurable progress on the required actions set out by SACS for the district to avoid a loss of accreditation. “We pledge our total commitment to staying fully accredited,” says Walker.
He is getting questions now from state board members about whether DeKalb acted on a 2011 advisory report from SACS. Walker says the district did act on those advisory actions.
Now, state board chair Barbara Hampton is asking what process DeKalb has in place to ensure the district stays on budget. “Sounds you even when you have a budget, you don’t stick to the budget,” she says.
Walker says the district has adhered to its budget and only hit problems this year. But he says the board is looking at its monitoring policies.
Just responded to question why DeKalb hasn’t acted before this. Why no sense of urgency? Walker says neither he nor any other board member knowingly violated SACS regulations
Walker: “I am not quibbling with SACS at all…I am focusing in that which is most important, meeting the requirements of those actions that are stated,” says Walker.
State board chair Hampton is citing her own work experience where errant employees pledge to do better but then fall back to their old behaviors. Over and over again, DeKalb has had problems pointed out by SACS and the district would correct them, she says. But then the problems would reoccur and SACS would point them out again.
Hampton: “What is different about this particular time that you’ve gotten these findings from SACS and you have a plan? What will be different about this time?”
Walker: “This is the first time ever that DeKalb has ever been on probation.”
Now, DeKalb board member Pam Speaks is saying that she is angry and embarrassed that the board is in this plight.
State board member Wanda Barrs is asking why Speaks is surprised to find the board in this situation.
Does Speaks accept the SACS report? “I accept the report but I may disagree with the interpretation.”
Can Speaks clarify what she means by interpretation?
As an example, Speaks cites the SACS charge in its report that board members interfere with day-to-day operations of schools. She agrees that board members should not interfere or micromanage.
“That is an accusation that has been made. I need clarification if I have done that. The SACS report says some board members have done that. If I am guilty, I want someone to point that out to me. I certainly know that is not my role. That is not my responsibility. If I have done that, and I don’t think I have, I would like someone to point it out to me,” says Speaks.
Barrs is now asking about whether Cheryl Atkinson has the “capacity” to help the board. Is she up to the job?
Speaks: “I don’t think it is the superintendent’s role to fix our responsibilities as a board. I do think the superintendent has the capacity to work in conjunction, in collaboration, with the present board of education to allow the board of education to carry out their role and responsibilities, as well as for her to carry out her roles and responsibilities.”
Speaks is blaming some of the problems that SACS saw on a new school chief coming in and trying to create her own vision and plan.
“I am standing before you now based on the special review team report, being on probation for the first time now and our past ranking, which was accredited warning. Our accreditation warning status came from fact that we had things in place, but because we had brand new superintendent who came out with a victory in the classroom plan that she was in the process of putting in place.”
There wasn’t enough time,” says Speaks, to fully act on all the SACS recommendations as Atkinson was putting her vision in place.
“I just know that I got a warning with regard to my students — that would have been my major wake up call,” says state board member Helen Odom Rice.
State board members are hitting the same themes: Hasn’t DeKalb been warned before by SACS? Why didn’t the board take action? Why did board member let it go this far? Why should the state board trust that the DeKalb board has seen the light now and will act more responsibly.”
Speaks is still at the podium. Her comments suggesting she disagrees with some SACS observations seems to bother the state board members, who appear to want DeKalb board members to own up to the problems identified by SACS. In fact, Hampton has just asked Speaks straight out: There are things in the SACS report with which you disagree?
Speaks says she disagrees with some of the SACS interpretations.
Now, state board member Kenneth Mason is asking Speaks “to give us your interpretation when necessary” of the SACS report.
Speaks offers another example where she sees something differently than the SACS review team cast it: SACS cites the harsh interrogation of district staff members by board members at meetings. Speaks says if asking school district staff tough questions is viewed as interrogation, she has to disagree with the SACS finding.
The board attorney clarifies something Speaks said: DeKalb has never been on accreditation warning, only advisement.
Now, brand new board member Marshall Orson is speaking, telling the state board that he’s only been on the board for 10 days. He is telling the state board why he ran and that he and other other new board members wants to build unity and create a spirit of collegiality.
He is giving a campaign speech of sorts, saying that school boards have a singular responsibility — ensuring children receive a high quality education. “There is nothing else that a school board has a responsibility for and it is in this light that I ran for the school board of DeKalb.”
Orson says status of school system was a factor in the campaign.
Now, the state board chair is asking Orson about reports that board members-elect are already visiting their schools.
“It is correct that post my election I did visit schools,” he says
Orson says he never considered these “my” schools. Without wanting to quibble with the SACS report, he says SACS never interviewed any of three newly elected board members on that matter and he was surprised that the language was in the report.
“What I did was done in full consultation with the superintendent,” he said.
State board member Linda Zechmann commenting on how often Orson mentions he is brand new: “Everyone needs to be aware that is not relevant to this body. We are charged to look at your board as a whole. I want to make sure you don’t belabor that point because it is meaningless to this body.”
Jesse Jay Cunningham is now facing questions: How much training do you have? He says he underwent 15 hours this year.
Now, Cunningham is being asked if he agrees with the SACS finding: “SACS has refined different roles in the time period I have been on this board. I have seen this evolve. I have seen cultural changes in how we work together as a group, as a school system. We really need to work on that gray area on what are the responsibilities of the superintendent as well as the board members as well as where SACS is going.”
State board member Mike Royal: Why has it taken this report to create a sense of urgency?
Cunningham: The urgency has always been there. Also says there was a perfect storm but did not make clear what the elements of that storm were. But then mentions superintendent search, media, “accusations being made,” constantly putting out fires. He is suggesting events overtook the board and forced it to take its eyes off the prize.
State Board Chair Hampton: Do DeKalb board members yell at each other and cut each other off? Is that how you behave?
Cunningham: He says that is not how he behaves. There are differences of opinion.
(The comments from DeKalb board members and the questions from the state board are getting repetitive. There is a focus from state board on the depth of training that DeKalb school boards receive.)
Newly elected board member Melvin Johnson is now speaking.
Short and sweet: He is committed to the consent order that is being presented to the state board.
Have you been out to the schools?
I went to several schools since my retirement from the school system in 2004. I have been invited to many schools. I have gone to many school breakfasts and PTAs but only when I was invited. I would never go into a school and disrupt the educational process.
Taking a break and reconvening at 3.
DeKalb board member Sarah Copelin-Wood:
She is concerned about what happens to students and impact of a possible accreditation loss on them.
She says she has been on the board for 12 years. prompting state board member Mike Royal asked, “Why haven’t you been more focused on resolving these issues before?”
Copelin-Wood: “They were just recently presented to us. We thought we were working them out when we would go up to Alpharetta every month to meet with Dr. Elgart…We want to do the best we can. We strive to do that.”
She answers this question right: Who do you represent? Copelin-Woods says DeKalb County rather than listing her specific district.
“The point is the children are the focus here. It is not me. I would like to see our children have a chance. Whatever it is we need to do, I stand ready to do that,” she says.
What should your focus be to make those first steps to creating board that does the best for the children of DeKalb County?
Copelin-Wood: Hiring an expert in governance and getting all the help we can as far is that concerned. We need to look at some of the polices we have. Make sure they say the things they are supposed to say.”
What is role the board?
Copelin-Wood: “Based on laws you have passed, the board’s responsibility is to manage and control. The superintendent’s responsibility is to handle the day-to-day operations.”
Asked about board conflicts and reports of staff intimidation, Copelin-Wood says, “You have to learn to disagree and not be disagreeable. Just because you read something doesn’t make it so.”
Does she send emails to superintendent a lot? She copies Atkinson on all her emails. If she gets an email from a parent, she copies to fellow board members and Atkinson.
School board member Nancy Jester:
Tells board that she is mom of three and ran for board because of “twin deficits” in public engagement/credibility and student achievement. But, once in office, also saw pending budget deficit. Began to warn of pending budget crisis at board meetings. Asked questions about it of staff and says she was often misled by staff in the answers given to her. Calls herself a watchful steward of the finances.
“I am certainly committed to being collaborative and to customizing a solution that fits a lot of unique problems we have in DeKalb,” she said.
Jester says she is struck by DeKalb’s low graduation rate. Says it is a state problem as well as a DeKalb problem.
She wants board training with district staff to build rapport rather than just generic leadership training. Cross pollinate with financial training.
Disturbed that while she was complaining about DeKalb budget, SACS failed to highlight the problems in its earlier reviews. Says Acting School Chief Ramona Tyson didn’t address financial issues, but did a good job at re-evaluating policies.
Did Jester alert her board members to budget issues?
She says: I wasn’t successful in getting the majority or the staff to look into that. Some tried to disprove me.
Now, Donna Edler is speaking, sharing her love of DeKalb and her decision to run.
Came on board at a time of challenges. I have a background in business. I am a CPA. Confident system will address financial challenges.
Like Jester, Edler is giving a lot of credit to the district’s new CFO for improving recording and reporting of financial data and revamping budget.
New DeKalb school board member Jim McMahan: Very familiar with schools through my volunteering. But did not visit schools as newly elected board member. Thought the SACS report made it seem like newly elected school boards were going into schools and disrupting process. Concerned about how that came across to the public.
Closing with a question for Eugene Walker: How could board not be aware of the $12 million in textbook funds that was purportedly spent on other things.
Walker says the money did go to textbooks. Canceled checks are at the school system, and the invoices can be found at Bank of America. He doesn’t understand why there is this perception that DeKalb lost a large chunk of money and doesn’t know where it went. He called it mean-spirited. He assures board that the money went to textbooks.
So, where are the textbooks?
Walker: Doesn’t know where each textbook is, but could be tracked by following the invoices. “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.”
Yes, Walker says he and Jester debate the under budgeting of legal fees and utility costs. “But we do it in great spirit,” he says.”We inform and we engage. We take serious the task and role we play. We are appealing to you let us go with this consent agreement and watch how we address these issues.”
“We have not known that we should not do something and do it anyhow. That’s not us.”
Zechmann asked more questions on books and Walker’s contention that the books were bought.
Zechmann: You wouldn’t know that unless they (the books) were received. We don’t go to schools to see if books landed there or if they are in the warehouse. What I am suggesting to you is that they are in the system somewhere.”
State board tells Walker: Find the books and verify them and get the allegation struck from the SACS report.
Discussion by state board:
State board member Brian K. Burdette wants a list of each DeKalb school board’s member training, 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. ”
State board member Mike Royal is not keen on endorsing a three-month consent order, saying that DeKalb’s problems have been on the horizon for a long time. He would prefer to vote today on suspending the DeKalb board but he understands the need for due process.
“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,” he said.
Royal made a motion to continue this hearing on Feb. 21. The DeKalb board would have to come back then and demonstrate progress.
The DOE attorney is now telling the state board that it ought to consider the consent order in front it and vote it up or down rather than create a third alternative to which neither party has agreed. “I understand your concerns. I understand the tone and the seriousness of the SACS investigation….and suggest to you that you have two choices.”
So, now the state board is considering approving the consent order, but require that the DeKalb board comes back in February. It approves a consent order and then tells DeKalb to return in a month to continue the discussion.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog