DeKalb school board: Is it defending itself against ’smoke’ or concrete allegations?

The AJC’s Ty Tagami has an interesting story tonight on the challenges facing the DeKalb school board in making its case in 10 hours before the state Board of Education, which will be weighing the board’s ouster.

According to Tagami:

In the meantime, DeKalb officials must argue their innocence before the Georgia Board of Education without being able to cross-examine key witnesses and not knowing which documents support which allegations. Atlanta Attorney Warren Fortson said that task will be difficult given the vague nature of the 20-page SACS report.

“It’s predicated on anonymous sources,” said Fortson, who was general counsel for Atlanta Public Schools for more than two decades. “You can’t defend yourself against smoke.”

The report identifies sources as “interviewees,” “stakeholder interviews,” “artifacts” or “various forms of evidence.” “Interviewees described a feeling of hopelessness,” it says, and “based on evidence from numerous interviews, several board members continue to make harassing calls and visits to schools.”

Mark Elgart, the president and CEO of SACS parent company AdvancEd, said soon after he released the report in December that SACS promised anonymity to induce people to talk. “We don’t have subpoena power,” Elgart said. Elgart acknowledged that his agency’s judgment hinged on the truthfulness of the 50 people interviewed, most of them administrators or school principals. But he said SACS used only anecdotes that his investigators could confirm with other interviews and “boxes” of documents or that sounded consistent with similar incidents described by multiple sources.

Elgart refused to release the documents the agency used for the report because, he said in December, he did not want to subject it to “critique.”

Critics say that approach allows SACS to make bold assertions that cannot be independently verified — or contested. That’s a central claim in the lawsuit DeKalb filed Tuesday attempting to halt the proceedings. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Amanda Lee decided Wednesday not to stop the state hearing, but she also scheduled a court date next week that could tie the governor’s hands.

A Georgia law allows removal of board members in school districts that SACS or other accrediting agencies have placed on probation. The law requires the state education board to make a recommendation to the governor. If the recommendation is for removal, Gov. Nathan Deal can suspend the entire board and name replacements.

But DeKalb alleges in court that this is unconstitutional because the law “illegally defers to the unelected and unaccountable SACS” the power to initiate suspension proceedings “without any inquiry into whether an elected local board of education member has committed any misconduct.” It “unconstitutionally creates an unreasonable qualification for local school board members: that they must remain in the good graces of an unelected, unaccountable private agency.”

Another Fulton judge has stopped the state in a similar case. A majority of the Sumter County school board sued the state in November, and Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane granted a temporary injunction that is still in place. The lawsuit is pending, with no court date set.

Don McChesney, a former DeKalb board member, said he thought the law enabling removal of the board wouldn’t withstand court scrutiny. “I’m not trying to defend the board. I think most of them ought to go,” McChesney said. “But I do think it’s unconstitutional.”

Only one board member, former chairman Eugene Walker, is referenced directly in SACS’ report, and only by title, though many of the accusations center on individuals. Walker couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, but he’s spoken often about the report. He’s particularly galled by an assertion of his “interference” in hiring when, on Aug. 24, he sent an email to then-Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson recommending someone for a job.

“Please know that I have met this young man and he is the brother of one of our board … I would appreciate any assistance that you could provide,” the report quoted the email as saying.

Many took that to mean Walker was endorsing the brother of someone with power — a board member. After reviewing the email though, Walker said he realized he sent it in reference to the brother of someone with little power — the unelected school board secretary, an employee who schedules board meetings and keeps notes on them. Walker said he thought the use of an ellipses was intentional. “They know they are misleading on that,” Walker said last month.

Among other developments:

  • – Board newcomers Melvin Johnson was elected in a 7-2 vote Wednesday to replace Gene Walker, who resigned the chair’s post on Monday. That means two newcomers lead the board; Jim McMahan was elected vice chair last week.

–At a meeting with a parents’ group this morning, new school chief Michael Thurmond told parents that he understands their frustration but they have to accept some of the responsibility. “I would question your sanity if you were not angry right now,” Thurmond told the parents. He also laid the blame at their feet. “I didn’t elect the board,” he said. “You did.”

– An Atlanta-based professional polling company found that DeKalb  voters are ready to shake up he school board. According to the Hicks Evaluation Group:

In a survey of registered voters county wide conducted Tuesday, February 19; nearly 80% stated that they favor: “Removing and replacing all of the school board members” or “Removing and replacing some of the school board members.” Over half (54.5%) said remove and replace all of the school board members.

“It is rare to see this kind of agreement across racial and/or political lines on an issue. A strong majority in every subgroup – gender, political affiliation, race – wants to see some type of change.  If the governor is paying attention to DeKalb, then I think this sends a strong message that he could potentially remove school board members without fear of substantial backlash from voters. This is almost a plea for action,” said lead pollster Fred Hicks.

The survey focused on the question of removing board members. Additional survey work is being conducted on the question of whether or not voters believe school board members should be able to use school funds to file a lawsuit designed to prevent removal.

The survey was conducted February 19 using autodial technology. It was not commissioned by any candidate or candidate committee and is solely the work of the Hicks Evaluation Group

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

25 comments Add your comment

mountain man

February 20th, 2013
10:28 pm

“I didn’t elect the board,” he said. “You did.”
“I didn’t elect the board,” he said. “You did.”
“I didn’t elect the board,” he said. “You did.”
“I didn’t elect the board,” he said. “You did.”
“I didn’t elect the board,” he said. “You did.”

Just wondering

February 20th, 2013
10:35 pm

I was one of the people interviewed for the report. I would be glad to testify publicly. Of course, I’m a parent not an employee so it makes things easier. The data I provided and the examples I share are easily verified and not at all speculative. However, no one can fire me from a job or punish me for my testimony. The employees should be protected by whistleblower laws, it is still something that I’m not sure I would be brave enough to do if I were an employee.

It is a shame that members of this board don’t have the self-respect that they should and simply step down. Time and time again, they have made bad decisions which idamaged the system and therefore the students in the system.

Earlier today, you questioned why they wanted to keep their jobs. For some of them, the kissing of the rain comes into play. While they don’t have much respect anywhere except in schools in their district and perhaps in their community this gives them something to look forward to. At least Sarah is using the health insurance provided by the school system.

I don’t believe the system can heal itself. There is a need for tremendous external pressure from places like the governor, the federal government, and more. I happen to think the newspaper is doing a really good job keeping this very important story and the public view.

Just wondering

February 20th, 2013
10:36 pm

Kissing of the ring not rain

The Deal

February 20th, 2013
10:42 pm

“In the meantime, DeKalb officials must argue their innocence before the Georgia Board of Education without being able to cross-examine key witnesses and not knowing which documents support which allegations.”

Poor DeKalb school board. They don’t know which documents support which allegations. You mean, they don’t have time to look over the evidence, hold an executive session, and craft enough lies to cover their tracks.

I wouldn’t have any qualms about testifying under oath in a situation where I knew I had always told the truth and done the right thing. The problem is that our board has done neither. That’s why they are uneasy.

Maybe now the DeKalb board can feel a little bit of the pain we parents and taxpayers have felt for the past six+ years. It doesn’t feel good for someone else who is in the decision-making position to hold all of the cards and know how to use them, does it?

Bernie

February 20th, 2013
10:57 pm

Mr Thurmond the same could be said about you. We (the Taxpayors) didn’t select the Superintendent,” “Political connections with the Board selected YOU!”

YOU, who are no where near officially qualified to hold such a position of Leadership, according to the official written policy of the Dekalb County Board of Education. Yet, you are being compensated, as if you are!

TOUCHE.

Centrist

February 20th, 2013
11:14 pm

Love these fun blog headline questions with obvious answers.

I have seen a poll from convicts in our nations prisons – 92.78% are innocent.

dekalbite

February 20th, 2013
11:46 pm

““Please know that I have met this young man and he is the brother of one of our board … I would appreciate any assistance that you could provide,” the report quoted the email as saying.

Many took that to mean Walker was endorsing the brother of someone with power — a board member. After reviewing the email though, Walker said he realized he sent it in reference to the brother of someone with little power — the unelected school board secretary, an employee who schedules board meetings and keeps notes on them.”

Well, which Board secretary is Dr. Walker referring to?

According to the moderator at DeKalb School Watch, one of the Board Secretaries is Walker’s daughter in law:
“We received a request to correct the name of new Board member Melvin Johnson on this agenda. We did make the correction, but we want it clearly known that this agenda was cut-and-pasted, as is, from the official agenda sent out by the Board secretary. That would be either Dorothea “Dee” Brown (Gene Walker’s daughter-in-law) whose salary was $58,245 in 2012 and/or Margaret Francois, whose salary was $59,177 in 2012……….Not only do we believe that two (2) board secretaries is one (1) too many, we also believe that a competent board secretary could be found for less than nearly $60,000 a year plus benefits.”
http://dekalbschoolwatch.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/tune-in-to-the-board-meeting-monday-january-7-at-6pm-should-be-interesting/

$58,245 would put Ms. Brown making more than a DeKalb Physics teacher with 17 years of teaching experience.

dekalbite

February 21st, 2013
12:03 am

SACS must have promised the interviewees anonymity since they know they would have been “career ended” in DeKalb. I don’t think SACS is a law enforcement agency that can provide “whistleblower protection” for employees who speak frankly.

In DeKalb no one is allowed to criticize the people above them without repercussions. Principals with problems are limited in who they can call when they have a problem in their school. They must adhere to a strict hierarchy. They can only call certain people with certain titles. Knowing your place is important. The fact that you need a fast resolution to a problem for a group of students is not considered important enough to break protocol. That is why being a principal is so utterly frustrating. Sadly, that’s just the way it is.

Chamblee Dad

February 21st, 2013
12:47 am

The board is obviously channeling Bart Simpson: ” I Didn’t Do It, Nobody Saw Me Do It, There’s No Way You Can Prove Anything!”

Dr. John Trotter

February 21st, 2013
1:18 am

SACS receives state monies and is therefore required to respond to Open Records Requests. Simply request the documents. When Mark Elgart refuses to release the “interview” documents, take him and SACS to court.

Private Citizen

February 21st, 2013
6:41 am

That’s some sweet music, Dr. Trotter. Basic, direct, capable, and real. The old way, the only way, the sole way, and using the courts for what they are for, making people behave and follow the law.

Fred in DeKalb

February 21st, 2013
7:06 am

**Perhaps no one writing on this blog has been as critical of the DeKalb Board of Education as I have been. On the streets with picket signs and everything. But, I am a constitutionalist first, and I believe that the school board was duly elected by the voters of DeKalb County and that the school board is set up by the Georgia Constitution. It appears to me that when certain people can’t get their people elected, then they run to the governor to get around elected politics.**

Dr. Trotter should feel vindicated by this blog based on the comments he made above earlier. Like myself, he has been critical of the Board’s actions with everyone else yet he has been one of the few voices questioning the constitutionality of the law passed in 2011. Many challenged him for even bringing this up. Whether people like it or not, it does come down to the rule of law. He also said below to a post very critical of him,

** What is right is to respect the democratic process. I don’t like given up this cherished right to an oligarchy or a Governor to appoint school board members. I have no particular dog in this fight. I don’t know a single school board member. I don’t have any of their phone numbers and have never broken bread with them, much less discussed the current affairs with them. I am just stating my opinions about democracy and the foolhardiness of given it up because a vocal minority can’t get their way.**

Mountain Man

February 21st, 2013
7:33 am

So, fine. Let the Dekalb county school board members stay as long as they are elected. But SACS still has their job to do and part of that is to make sure the school Board is functioning as intended and that individual members are not using their power to intimidate. I saw this first-hand in Cherokee County in 1999. WE forced the resignation of our one offending member. If Dekalb citizens won’t take it upon themselves to get rid of Board members, then let SACS strip them of their accreditation. The current Board members don’t seem to care.

The problem is that the people who will be hurt the most by the loss of accreditation are the “vocal minority” – mostly in North Dekalb. The GOOD students are the ones who will suffer. All those failing schools in South Dekalb (yes, the ones Mike Thurmond did not want his daughter going to) with their failing students won’t be hurt by loss of accreditation – they don’t require accreditation to get into prison.

That is why Dekalb need to be split into different school systems – let the ones whose Board members care more about hiring family members than their students’ nedds – let them rot. But at least let the parents who care and elect Board members who care – let them get out of the bad system. Or you will see a LOT of charter schools in Dekalb county. Thank GOODNESS we now can Charter schools at the State level.

concernedmom30329

February 21st, 2013
7:35 am

The Board of Ed should not be allowed to use tax dollars to challenge the constitutionality of the law. How is that for a compromise? They can challenge the law, but with their own dollars….

Why? Because the chlidren and employees of the system are suffering from a lack of resources. This is not a system that is doing well fiscally and it won’t be next year either.

Thurmond is going to spin a “yarn” today that the fiscal picture looks better. We aren’t in quite as much debt as previously believed. (Frankly, I don’t trust him and the fact that he won’t ask for a forensic audit only reinforces those believes.)

catlady

February 21st, 2013
8:51 am

The individual board members KNOW what they did. they just don’t know how much evidence is against them.

Mountain Man

February 21st, 2013
8:53 am

“The individual board members KNOW what they did. they just don’t know how much evidence is against them.”

Of course they do. They just want to see the evidence so they can fire those who spoke against them and refute the evidence against them. Look at Walker’s comments about pressuring a certain person to be hired. He is now trying to say the person’s relative wasn’t very powerful. That is beside the point. Dr. Walker is powerful and is trying to use his (Board) power to influence hiring.

dekalbite

February 21st, 2013
9:25 am

“““Please know that I have met this young man and he is the brother of one of our board … I would appreciate any assistance that you could provide,” the report quoted the email as saying.

Many took that to mean Walker was endorsing the brother of someone with power — a board member. After reviewing the email though, Walker said he realized he sent it in reference to the brother of someone with little power — the unelected school board secretary, an employee who schedules board meetings and keeps notes on them.”

Don’t taxpayers have a right to know if the “brother” of the board secretary was Mr. Walker’s daughter in law’s brother? Dr. Walker’s son is a security officer who made $62,000 in salary 2011 and then in 2012 made $69,400+ per the state Salary and Travel audit (did teachers get a raise in 2012?). That’s more than Physics teacher with a PhD and 16 years of teaching experience makes in DeKalb. And these aren’t the only relatives he has in the school system according to his quote in the AJC.

Here is a good question for Dr. Walker. Was this “young man” the brother of Dr. Walker’s daughter-in-law or the brother of her co-worker? Either way it is cronyism or neoptism and this was AFTER SACS had warned DeKalb about such practices.

bootney farnsworth

February 21st, 2013
10:01 am

if I were so depraved as to be on the DCSS board, I would have no problem lying, too

bootney farnsworth

February 21st, 2013
10:04 am

I trust Warren Fortson almost as much as I trust Gov. Deal. which means, not at all. Fortson knows his job is to make problem issues go away, and he’s very good at it.

Mountain Man

February 21st, 2013
10:37 am

“Is it defending itself against ’smoke’ or concrete allegations?”

You know the old saying – where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It sounds like the Board is saying, yes I see lots of smoke but you will have to show me the flames before I will agree that there is fire somewhere generating that smoke. And you need to tell me who reported that fire.

Returning DCSS Parent

February 21st, 2013
11:10 am

@Mountain Man

Your white hood is showing and it ain’t pretty!

bootney farnsworth

February 21st, 2013
12:45 pm

@ returning

your black power salute is showing, and it’s pretty stupid.

Mountain Man

February 21st, 2013
2:16 pm

“@Mountain Man Your white hood is showing and it ain’t pretty!”

You know nothing about me. While I do not claim to be 100% non-biased, I WAS at the rally march in 1987 with Hosea Williams ( not that I ever liked him). I was one of the 20,000. Why? Because I don’t like blatant racism (from either side).

However, I do have a penchant for saying exactly what I mean and not being P.C.

Returning DCSS Parent

February 21st, 2013
4:24 pm

@Bootney

don’t care about you or your biased opinions. It seems to be ok for you and others to call voters in South DeKalb uniformed, ignorant, etc.
Calling me stupid shows your own ignorance and stupidity. Get over yourself!!!

Returning DCSS Parent

February 21st, 2013
4:28 pm

Mountain Man, you still can’t speak for the African American community. The beauty of living in our country is that we can say whatever we want. I am not PC either but more sick of the ugly, racist comments when talking about this issue with the BOE.