The state Board of Education gave the DeKalb County school board a month to straighten up or risk dissolution.
Rather than pull itself together, the school board overseeing the state’s third-largest district appears nearer to falling apart.
With accreditation at risk, the superintendent out the door and an interim taking the reins today, the situation in DeKalb is dire, and the board bears a lot of the blame.
All nine members of the DeKalb school board ought to resign en masse. They’ve lost the trust of the community and the confidence of employees and are risking the welfare of students.
Under the policies and management of this board, DeKalb has experienced constant political intrigue and churn. For the third time in three years, DeKalb schools have a new leader after Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, hired amid great fanfare 16 months ago, resigned Friday. Former Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond was appointed interim superintendent.
While Thurmond is politically adroit and a proven manager, he lacks an education background, making it all the more vital that those elected to shape education policy in DeKalb are united in a vision to enhance education quality and assure equity.
DeKalb needs stability after a chain reaction of damaging crises, including the 2010 indictment of former Superintendent Crawford Lewis on conspiracy and fraud charges.
But it also needs reinvention and reinvigoration. It needs dynamic school-based leaders. It needs an intense student-achievement focus that addresses both the district’s high performing and struggling students.
This board has not demonstrated the capacity to provide either stability or innovation.
In a scathing critique of the DeKalb board, SACS noted, “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. These interviewees used terms like fear, harassment, and intimidation to describe the behaviors of board members. Those interviewed consistently expressed that board members have created a level of animosity, and that both teachers and principals operate in fear.”
When the state board ordered the DeKalb school board members to report back on Feb. 21, DeKalb Chairman Eugene Walker promised there would be measurable progress on the required improvements outlined by SACS to avoid losing accreditation.
“We pledge our total commitment to staying fully accredited, ” he reassured the state board.
But, despite its pledge to work collaboratively, the board couldn’t muster five votes last week to elect a new chair, which means Walker keeps the top job for the moment. Walker received four votes against two other nominees and four again in a runoff when two board members abstained.
“What appears to be the dismal and total lack of integrity and transparency of the present DeKalb Board of Education is endangering the future of the DeKalb school system, ” said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators.
Some board members counter that they’re not the problem. It’s their self-serving colleagues who’ve allowed personal agendas, petty politics and a penchant for litigation to endanger the district’s accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which placed DeKalb on probation in December because of mismanagement, meddling, nepotism and fiscal failings.
The three newly elected members can rightfully insist that it’s unfair to freight them with the wrongdoings of the board’s veterans.
But it’s an all-or-nothing deal under a 2011 state law that allows the governor to oust a dysfunctional school board and appoint a new slate (Those DeKalb members who feel wronged and desire another chance on the board can ask the governor to reappoint them, which the Department of Education assured me was permissible).
At the state board meeting in January, DeKalb school board members presented four hours of reasons why they should retain their seats.
But here are 99,000 reasons why they should not: The students of DeKalb have been shortchanged by the inability of this board to put their needs first.
After emerging from a private meeting with the board a week ago, Thurmond told reporters, “I’m here today because I’m interested in the future of public education in DeKalb County. I made it clear. I’m here to help.”
That’s good. Because if anything is clear in this mess, it’s that DeKalb needs help.