Under pressure and deadlines, is DeKalb school board falling apart when it’s supposed to be pulling itself together?

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.

Here is an excerpt of the AJC account of that meeting by Tagami:

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

73 comments Add your comment

Dunwoody Mom

February 7th, 2013
10:29 am

Well, what caused David Schutten to “see the light”? Does he still have any of those “Welcome to DeKalb” buttons he was distributing at Dr. Atkinson’s so-called “meet and greet” in 2011?

As far as Jester and Speaks abstaining – how could they possibly vote for any of the BOE members running for Chairman? They are all bad, bad choices. Personally, 2/21 cannot get here soon enough.


February 7th, 2013
10:30 am

Sounds like Jester and Speaks cutting off their nose to spite their face. They didn’t want to “lose” to the central Dekalb triad (Elder/McMahan/Orson).

Those quotes from David Schutten are pretty strong. When I’ve seen him before he’s usually a little more cautious in his criticisms.

living in an outdated ed system

February 7th, 2013
10:31 am

Wow. That’s about all I can say. Other than that, I think it’s time that the Governor remove the board and start over. And the new board should fill the Superintendent role, at least on an interim basis.



February 7th, 2013
10:32 am

The logical reason for not announcing Atkinson is leaving is that they haven’t negotiated the buyout yet. This has happened pretty quickly, so its still probably in the negotiation stage.

Dunwoody Mom

February 7th, 2013
10:34 am

If the SBOE recommends suspension and the Governor agrees and members of this BOE fight their ouster, it won’t be just David Schutten going after them. Parents all over this county will make sure that every misdeed and misstep of this BOE is made public. Do they really want all of this revealed in public?


February 7th, 2013
10:35 am

As k the board to read “Black skins white masks” by Fanon !!! They will understand how they are
shackled !!!

10:10 am

February 7th, 2013
10:37 am

It’s oddly reassuring that things like incompetence and corruption in DeKalb government—and the tribal voting enabling it all—can be counted on to endure until the very end of time …


February 7th, 2013
10:42 am

I know David Schutten and if his remarks are strong it is because he has evidance to support his words! DeKalb parents really needs to step up and let their voices be heard!!


February 7th, 2013
10:43 am

“is DeKalb school board falling apart”

It has long since passed that “falling apart” milestone.

Dunwoody Mom

February 7th, 2013
10:53 am

Hopefully, David sent his summary to SBOE members.


February 7th, 2013
11:00 am

Off topic,it appears that our leader, Mr. Barge, has been collecting money for travel from his home to the office, a no-no. Heck, let him have it, but pay ALL of us for our commutes to our schools! Designate his home a satelite DOE? Sure, mine is too! I work from home as well!


February 7th, 2013
11:04 am

If this Board had elected Pam Speaks outright as chair, there would be a vestige of hope that collectively they’d seen the light. Jester and Speaks likely abstained because Edler is no more chair material than Walker. Obviously whatever they’d discussed in executive session fell apart – Johnson’s switch from nomination to vote is a blatant example. You may not like gamesmanship, but it’s a political reality in consensus-building efforts like electing a chair. And kudos to Speaks and Jester for creating the opportunity to vote again in 30 days.

Remember when Cunningham told the State Board during last month’s hearing they’d been too distracted to deal with the SACs recommendations under advisement? Distracted doesn’t begin to describe this School Board.


February 7th, 2013
11:10 am

Another fine showing (and proving) as to what happens when incompetents elect incompetents. This whole thing is a disaster, and anybody who can pour p*ss out of a boot knows it.

Huntley Hills Tiger

February 7th, 2013
11:19 am

Voting Summary:

Assuming DSW is correct: In the first round was Jester (two votes, Speaks and Jester), Edler (three votes, Edler, Orson and McMahan) and Walker (Copelin-Woods, Cunningham, Johnson and Walker). Jester then out. NOTE: Johnson nominated Edler for chair and then voted for Walker. Next vote, Jester and Speaks don’t vote, none else changed so Walker stays chair for now. Per Ty, they can vote to change during next 30 days if anyone can come up w/5.

Smoke Rise Mom

February 7th, 2013
11:19 am

If they can’t even come together in the interest of their own self-preservation and pick one from among themselves who can at least speak articulately and stay awake for meetings, how can they possibly select an interim and future superintendent?

I can fathom why Thurmond would be all over this. It would at least double his salary over what he earned at DOL and I believe he has the option to remain under the state employees retirement system.

Huntley Hills Tiger

February 7th, 2013
11:21 am

Sorry for redundant post, d/n catch the summary above.

Disgusted in Dekalb

February 7th, 2013
11:28 am

It appears that they were able to agree on a vice chair, Mr. McMahon. And what is the role of the vice chair? Does he step in when Walker dozes off?

Mountain Man

February 7th, 2013
11:34 am

Just get rid of them.

Married with (School) Children

February 7th, 2013
11:43 am

Back on January 17, Maureen asked “Can the DeKalb school board reinvent itself in 30 days?”
Since then:

We discovered that Ralph “I am not a plagiarist” Taylor was paid $10,000 for a 15-page long report that had at least a third of its content copied directly from publications posted on the internet. The board did not take any public action against him and the board’s sole direct report (Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson) even defended him by saying “The infraction pertains to his work as a consultant, not as an employee.”

Superintendent Atkinson has gone missing; most high level Dekalb School administrators have no idea where she is.

The Board is conducting a search for an Interim Superintendent, but will not publicly confirm this search. Their leading candidate is a criminal defense attorney turned politician who has no professional experience in education.

The answer is “NO, the board has not reinvented itself”. They still have a week and a half left, but it is clear that they have no intention of changing. They are busy positioning themselves to fight their pending suspensions.

It would be funny, except that the children continue to suffer: just this morning, WSB-TV posted a story about a hysterical girl who was found 2 miles from her normal Dekalb school bus stop.


February 7th, 2013
12:01 pm

As an observer of this incredible farce (and with no dog in this fight), I find myself forced to ask:

Do you think that the members of the DeKalb County Board of Education are even aware of the ridicule with which they are viewed? Or are they so incredibly clueless that they don’t realize what a sad, sick joke they really are?

Wow. Just … wow.

Teacher Reader

February 7th, 2013
12:11 pm

If the board isn’t voted out this month by the state BOE, than they are just as corrupt and self serving as the current board members.

I am glad that Speaks and Jester did not vote for either person up for chair if they felt that either one would not be good for the school district. I happen to agree and am disappointed in Marshall and McMahan. Edler is not for the district, but what she can do to keep programs for her kids.

Pardon My Blog

February 7th, 2013
12:16 pm

@ Mountain Man – agreed! How much more of these clowns can we take? And they wonder why so many areas want to become cities. Better to have charter clusters.

bootney farnsworth

February 7th, 2013
12:31 pm

can’t save what is terminal. better to allow it to die as gently as possible

insider 1.0

February 7th, 2013
12:42 pm

The community is going ape#$%&@ bananas because it appears that 1) Thurmond has been illegally hired. 2) the GABOE will do nothing. 3) Deal will do nothing. 4) Walker will remain chair and collude with BFF Thurmond to further rape and pillage what’s left. Will it really take bankruptcy and missed payroll to end this???? Glad that Shutten has stepped up but more specifics are needed. How do we initate a recall?

Private Citizen

February 7th, 2013
12:50 pm

We can only hope. Maybe they’ll go together on a field trip and find a sinkhole and take the whole edu-bureaucracy into the vortex with them. http://www.nachi.org/images10/Guatemala-Sinkhole.jpg


February 7th, 2013
12:51 pm

Get rid of the Board and the Supt and all of her cronies clean house and give the system a dam fighting chance.

Private Citizen

February 7th, 2013
12:55 pm

If the law is not followed, one might suggest a class action suit by parents and / or taxpayers?

Disgusted in Dekalb

February 7th, 2013
12:59 pm

ColonelJack, if you watched Eugene Walker speaking before the State BOE, you would be convinced that he looks about him and sees only a smoothly running system with a balanced budget that is plagued by “disgruntled parents” making unfair accusations of financial mismanagement and incompetence.

Porter Waggoner

February 7th, 2013
1:02 pm

In reference to Thurmond could this be a behind the scenes plan with Deal to avoid the inevitable race card being played?

Middle School parent

February 7th, 2013
1:10 pm

I agree with you, George. Gov. Deal should have taken charge of this situation long ago. I have two children in the DCCS. I worry about the future of this county’s education system. Something needs to be done and it needs to be done now!! This job was too big for Dr. Atkinson and she couldn’t handle it. The board is only out for themselves and their family & friends. Nobody is thinking about the children. That’s why the moral is so low! If the the leaders are screwed up, how are the other suppose to act? Come on and get it together. Much prayer is needed.

Principal Skinner

February 7th, 2013
1:13 pm

I hope Ty is pressing the angle of this story which suggests that the DkBoe isn’t even addressing the instructions from GABOE and SACS, but are instead entrenching themselves for a fight v. the State. That would not only be selfish/self-serving, but absolutely detrimental to our kids.

However, this is what I’ve come to expect from this group


bootney farnsworth

February 7th, 2013
1:28 pm

Walker – the Maynard Jackson of DeKalb county

Dunwoody Mom

February 7th, 2013
1:34 pm

I wouldn’t think that any discussion of the SACS/GABOE issues could legally fall under “Executive Session”. So, what else could they be discussion other than trying to keep their jobs? Surely it does not take 10 executive session in 10 days to discuss the issue with Dr. Atkinson.

Private Citizen

February 7th, 2013
1:46 pm

Metaphorically, if you compare a good solid brit-euro K-12 public education http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=fvwp&v=kCGGCSbT7G4 with the US equivalent http://imgur.com/IEC0ey0 , what is the difference? (Discuss)

Metro Coach

February 7th, 2013
1:46 pm

Two phrases: Parent trigger. Charter system.

Private Citizen

February 7th, 2013
1:47 pm

Metaphorically, if you compare a good solid brit-euro K-12 public education http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=fvwp&v=kCGGCSbT7G4 (continued)

Private Citizen

February 7th, 2013
1:47 pm

with the US equivalent http://imgur.com/IEC0ey0 , what is the difference? (Discuss)


February 7th, 2013
1:54 pm

Didn’t think the nasty, foul, disorganized, trouble-making Dr. Atkinson would reign long. She was a poor choice from the start. The board should have listened to the grumblings from her previous position. Her underhanded ways and less than professional closed door disposition was telling.

DeKalb County School District Employee

February 7th, 2013
1:59 pm

Sad just sad!

The Deal

February 7th, 2013
2:24 pm

If I had a dime for every time I thought, “Just when I thought this system couldn’t sink any lower,” I would have enough money to compensate for my property value loss thanks to this school system.

Unbelievably we are at a new low. We have a board who was given 30 days to show ANY progress toward, well, progress, and they meet privately to do exactly the opposite – how to save their own hides. In their “defense”, there’s no way they could come up with a plan to help the children because that has never been their intention or their ability.

I fully support Jester and Speaks abstaining in the second vote. Edler can barely put together a coherent sentence, and she certainly hasn’t show herself to be a leader in anything but protecting magnet transportation. In fact, had she been elected chair, there might have been another pointless waiting period of “let’s see how she does”, when, in reality, we all know how she would “do”.

McMahan and Orson have now shown their true colors in voting for Edler, and they should NOT be reappointed should the Governor remove the board. They are neck-deep in these politics as if they had been there all along.



February 7th, 2013
2:26 pm

Kansas City as deputy super, Lorain as super, DCSS as super, a trail of bankrupt systems for Dr. Atkinson.


February 7th, 2013
2:34 pm

If Jester seriously thought she could or should be elected chair, she has less common sense than I thought. 1) You won’t get a white vice-chair and white chair; 2) the chief combatants shouldn’t be in the top spot if you are trying to work together-i.e. Jester and Walker are absolutely disqualified.

The chair has to be Elder or Johnson. And if Johnson supported retaining Walker, that raises questions about his sense. Cunningham and Woods are inappropriate. Speaks was too much of a combatant. Orson would be too many whites at the top (I’m not saying that’s right, but its political reality. There’s still an enormous amount of false belief that whites in Dekalb are taking all the resources and making the South Dekalb schools bad).


February 7th, 2013
2:39 pm

Hopefully everybody starts taking notice and demanding concrete action because if we continue to have new cities formed, thereby completely diluting the tax base, what kind of system will there be left?


February 7th, 2013
2:42 pm

In trying to understand why Speaks and Jester would allow Walker to remain as chairman, I came up with several scenarios and none of them good:
1) They think Elder is totally incompetent.
2) They think Walker is ok as chair.
3) They think somehow they will swing the 3 Elder votes to Jester by holding out.
4) They didn’t get their way so they are taking their ball and going home.
5) They want the board to be dissolved and so they are trying to make it look bad.

bootney farnsworth

February 7th, 2013
2:45 pm

cue the Titannic Band. tune up Nearer My God to Thee.

DCSS is toast, the rest of the county not far behind.


February 7th, 2013
2:46 pm

@bu2 So you’re saying it’s Edler? You dismissed everyone else but the Vice Chair. If it’s impossible for these 9 to ever collaborate, then SBOE and Deal should wipe it all out for we DeKalb voters are collectively too stupid to elect a BOE that knows their responsibilities and acts accordingly. Have the new members received their Board training yet?

bootney farnsworth

February 7th, 2013
2:49 pm

@ bu2

you forgot these:

6- all other options are worse
7- Walker has something on them (a strong probability)
8-they think they can play Walker


February 7th, 2013
2:51 pm

Totally agree The Deal. Suspect Speaks and Jester thought their non vote would be counted meaning Walker would have secured 4 out of 9 and thus no majority but after voting learned (I heard there was much confusion about the voting requiring the lawyer to scramble for answers) that they were not included in the quorum so 4 was a majority of 7; I also heard the lawyer told them they can vote again within the next 30 days to attempt to get 5 votes, not vote in 30 days – after 30 days, Walker is chair by default.

The Deal

February 7th, 2013
2:53 pm

bu2, it is EDLER, not Elder.


February 7th, 2013
3:01 pm

Johnson was seen dining with Francis Edwards recently. It bothered the PTA parents in S. DeKalb who saw that so much that they let people know.
I don’t think Jester thought she could be elected chair. But I do believe that if Orson or McMahan wanted to make sure Walker wasn’t chair, it could have happened. I think that it isn’t just strange that Johnson nominated Edler and didn’t vote for her. I think he did it to get Orson and McMahan someone wot vote for, because Orson can’t stand Jester and couldn’t vote for Walker, because his reputation will be damaged.
I do believe that Orson will support Thurmond and then give us some baloney about unity and so forth and so on. But Thurmond is unproven at best and ineffective at worse. At some point, someone has to worry about what is good for the system and the students and not about unity..

After tomorrow, it will have been a very good week for Walker. Reelected chair, developed a strategy to fight state removal at taxpayer’s expense and hired “his man” as superintendent.