The DeKalb Board is under a microscope and a deadline now that the state Board of Education is considering its dissolution. It doesn’t appear that the board is holding up well under the increased scrutiny.
Despite multiple closed meetings, the board has yet to announce the status of Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, who reportedly resigned.
It seems those closed meetings are to find an interim replacement for Atkinson. The board called another executive session for 3 p.m. today. (State law allows elected bodies to duck behind closed doors and shut out the public and press for approved exemptions, including personnel and legal matters.)
Former state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond emerged from a session with the board Monday, which suggests that he’s under consideration for the interim slot. (Let me applaud the reporting of the AJC’s Ty Tagami who is staying with this story. That has meant a lot of waiting around while the DeKalb school board meets in executive sessions.)
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is pursuing the question of Atkinson’s job status. On Wednesday, the school system responded to an open records request from the AJC for any agreement terminating Atkinson’s contract by saying no such documents existed. “We want the public to know, but we don’t want the public to know prematurely, ” said board chair Eugene Walker.
The DeKalb board has to return to the state board on Feb. 21 to report on its efforts to rehabilitate itself. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the district on probation in December 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 four hours of testimony two weeks ago, the state Board of Education delayed voting on recommending that the governor oust the fractious school board, instead giving DeKalb time to show improvement.
DeKalb Chair Eugene Walker promised 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,” Walker told a skeptical state board.
Speaking of Walker, he is still the chair after the board could not muster a majority to name a new leader.
They tried and tried again Wednesday, but the nine members of the DeKalb County school board still couldn’t find five votes to elect a new leader. Their failure to muster a majority behind a choice for school board chairman in 2013 means former board chair Eugene Walker retains the title, at least for the time being. Walker got four votes against two other nominees and four again in a runoff when two board members abstained.
An accreditation agency has placed the system on probation due in part to school board fractiousness. Their lukewarm endorsement of their leader didn’t give teachers’ representative David Schutten much cause for hope.
It was at least the fourth attempt to hold a vote, with prior exercises canceled for one reason or another, most recently on Monday, for failure to properly advertise the meeting.
By getting the most votes of any candidate Wednesday, Walker remains chairman but can be replaced in the next 30 days if a majority of the members present at a given meeting agree on another candidate. The board did select a vice chairman though: Jim McMahan, one of three new board members, got five votes.
Here also is a summary of the same board meeting from David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators:
As far as I could tell, only four citizens other than reporters and DCSS employees attended Wednesday’s DeKalb Board meeting to witness the fiasco of the Board’s fourth attempt to elect a Chair and Vice-Chair.
The process of electing a Board Chair was truly bizarre. Dr. Eugene Walker was elected on a 4-3-2 vote as I previously reported with Walker, Johnson, Cunningham and Wood voting for Walker; Edler, Orson, and McMahan voting for Edler; and Jester and Speaks abstaining, thus allowing Dr. Walker to remain Board Chair. In my opinion Jester and Speaks are as equally responsible for the election of Dr. Walker as Chair, as the four Board members who openly voted for the status quo.
I find this problematic on many counts:
1. Dr. Walker’s testimony at the January Georgia Board of Education meeting was pitiful, unprofessional and abysmal. As the students would say. It was clueless.
2. When asked by a state BoE member why the DeKalb Board did not take the SACS concerns seriously previously, both Dr. Walker and Sarah Copelin-Wood testified they were not aware there were problems. These statements defy credibility.
3. Dr. Walker has repeatedly denied any proof of nepotism and “the friends and family network.” This denial also lacks any semblance of credibility.
4. Many people besides myself who attended the Georgia BoE meeting had the impression that both Dr. Walker and Ms. Copelin-Wood were dozing off during the meeting. This in itself is disturbing.
5. The simple fact that the DeKalb BoE could not muster 5 votes to elect a Chair is problematic. Were back room deals cut and then ignored? Why did Dr. Melvin Johnson nominate Donna Edler for Chair, then vote for Dr. Walker? This action sends up a red flag.
What appears to be the dismal and total lack of integrity and transparency of the present DeKalb BoE is endangering the future of the DeKalb School System.
They are apparently now meeting secretly to find an Interim Superintendent. Many people believe it will be former Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. Many people on the AJC Get Schooled blog questioned his long-term relationship with Dr. Walker. Personally, I cannot fathom or believe Michael Thurmond would sacrifice the significant political capital and influence he has built up over the last two decades to protect and reinstate the nepotism and “friends and family network” that ruled DeKalb for so many years. I am ready to go public and name names. Is anyone willing to join me?
The DeKalb BoE should not spend taxpayer dollars to challenge the state law allowing the governor to remove them. They should use their campaign funds or raise funds from donors who still support them. I understand the concerns of citizens who question the law that overrides the voters of DeKalb. However, the fact that Dr. Walker and Ms. Copelin-Wood have been re-elected does not speak highly of DeKalb voters. If the governor does not remove them, perhaps it is time to recall them.
Both Dr. Walker and Ms. Copelin-Wood would do a great service to the students and all DeKalb stakeholders if they immediately tendered their resignations so the children can receive the best education possible, and the DeKalb School System can move forward. I will be submitting an Open Records Request to review all of their emails to district administrators over the last three or four years. Do they really want their myriad of emails made a matter of public record?
And, finally, as co-chair of the faith based and labor based community organizing group Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment, I find the silence of religious leaders disheartening and discouraging. It is time for religious leaders in DeKalb County to speak up on behalf of our children and demand changes in the way the DeKalb BoE operates.
If not now, when?
–from Maureen Downey for the AJC Get Schooled blog