The AJC is reporting that the DeKalb County school board filed a lawsuit today challenging a state law that could result in the removal of the nine school board members.
(Do you get the sense that the DeKalb’s board focus has moved from the schoolhouse to the courthouse?)
The suit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, seeks a temporary restraining order to prevent a hearing by the Georgia Board of Education Thursday.
The hearing could result in a recommendation to suspend the DeKalb board. Such a recommendation would give Gov. Nathan Deal authority to remove the DeKalb board per a 2011 law. The law requires a hearing — like the one scheduled Thursday — for any school district whose accreditation is on probation. DeKalb was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in December. The agency threatened to strip accreditation altogether if the school board doesn’t address financial and management concerns.
The lawsuit, filed by Decatur attorney Robert Wilson on behalf of the DeKalb district, alleges that the 2011 law violates the Georgia constitution because it authorizes removal of local elected officials “without any individualized finding of misconduct.”
When I received a tip this morning about the restraining order, one of the first people I called was Michael Thurmond who told me that this was a board action and that he could not speak to it.
But since I had him on the phone, I asked him some other questions, including why he pulled his own child out of DeKalb schools. (To his credit, Thurmond is accessible, providing a cell phone number and speaking directly to the press rather than through a spokesman. I think leaders do better to speak for themselves.)
First off: Did Gene Walker bring him on board?
While Thurmond has known Walker for years and considers him a friend, dating back to their shared time in the state Legislature, Walker did not propose him for the interim school chief’s post. It was new board member Marshall Orson, says Thurmond. He notes that he and Walker ran against each other for Congress in 1992
Thurmond said he is impressed with Walker’s decision to step down from the chair’s post for the sake of the system.
What he thinks media got wrong thus far:
He says that when he offered to speak to the state Board of Education on Thursday — if that hearing is held — he intends to to speak for the district, not for the board.
On the hiring of McKenna Long & Aldridge to provide governance training to DeKalb at a cost of $150,000:
“I recommended we get an outside firm with expertise and experience in governance training,” he said.
This training is not just for the board, but for him and the central office staff as well. “Looking at the SACS findings, governance is the issue time and time again. SACS really focused on governance. That one seemed to be intractable. I want to start a baseline to restructure the culture,” he said.
(Thurmond sent me the scope of work document from the law firm, which I will post later in a Google doc.)
Can he work with this school board?
“Yes, I have no choice. This is the board that the people elected. I have no choice but to do what I need to do. This is the board that hired me to do what I need to do.”
He mentioned seeing signs of improvement already. I asked him enumerate:
“We are going to have new board leaders, a new chair and vice chair. My hiring — that was a courageous move to bring someone from the outside, who, as so many people have pointed out, does not have an education background.”
“We hired McKenna Long & Aldridge to help us with governance.”
“The fact that we are going tomorrow to get board training — whole board training for the superintendent and the board — from the Georgia School Boards Association.”
“I am reaching out to stakeholders that have not had a special relationship with DeKalb Schools, including the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce. I had a great initial meeting with them. I reached out to the DeKalb delegation. I was scheduled to meet with the DeKalb County Commission this morning but had to cancel. I met with Mark Elgart [head of the accrediting agency] today and had a great meeting with him. The lines of communication are open. People I’ve met seem to be at least hopeful that we are moving in the right direction.”
Why he made the decision to take his daughter out of DeKalb schools and enroll her in private school: (Thurmond’s daughter is a TV reporter in Tennessee.)
“For two years in a row, I tried to get her into Bouie. Just like other parents. I tried every legal, ethical device to try to get her in. We never got into the lottery. So, we made the decision to send her to private school. My goal is that parents do not have to make the decision we made. I love public education; I love my daughter more. The reason she is on TV in Chattanooga is that she got a great education. Every parent is not as fortunate to be able to afford private school or even make the sacrifices we did. No parent should be forced to make that decision, that painful decision.”
Thurmond said he didn’t choose to send his child to the local school because, “It was a failing school in south DeKalb. You could tell that funding was not what it needed to be. The staff was doing their best, but they didn’t have adequate resources. From looking at the resources, the equipment, the maintenance, you could see the school was not up to par.”
“My daughter was a HOPE scholar at UGA. She was an honor student. Basically, she went to college almost free. But I am still paying for middle school. That is just too much to ask of parents. That is why we have to have world-class public schools. We have to be willing to make that investment.”
-from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog