Afternoon session of state Board of Education hearing on whether to oust the DeKalb County Board of Education. (See earlier blog on what happened in the first half of the day.)
Waiting again for Sarah Copelin-Wood who was on the stand when the hearing broke for lunch. I am listening to the hearing online and the microphones are picking up general chatter around the board table. Some board member is complaining about how long Copelin-Wood is keeping them waiting. “No respect. No courtesy.”
DOE attorney Jennifer Hackemeyer is back to the email and whether it went to school employees. “Your earlier testimony was that you did not send to a list of employees. I have given you this email and ask that you take a look at it to see if it refreshes your recollection. It appears it was sent to at least one DeKalb County employee. Is that true?”
Copelin-Wood: “Not me, I did not send it. I didn’t sent it to her. Maybe, she was on her personal email. I never would have sent this to our school system address. Period.”
“Your recollection is not refreshed?” asked Hackemeyer, who is now dropping the email challenge. Wilson protests that the email discussion should be struck since the email was not entered into evidence. Nor was there any verification that she sent it to anyone at a DeKalb school address.
State board is now asking Copelin-Wood questions: She is being asked how and when the contract reviews contracts for legal services. This is not her finest moment. She is inconsistent in her answers about contract approvals, sparking one board member to say: “You are telling me your approve contracts for legal services over $100,000 after the monies have been spent?”
(My take: Copelin-Wood did not help the board’s cause at all.)
Michael Thurmond is now testifying. He is giving his family history, including about why he decided to take the interim job. “Nothing could be more important than helping to lead this school district beyond the problems it faces,” he said.
Thurmond is being questioned by Wilson, so the tone is friendly and positive. Wilson is leading Thurmond into explaining what positive steps have been taken, including the pledge from the board to work with him. He asked each, “Are you committed to make the tough decisions that needed to be made?” “What is your level of commitment?”
Thurmond is making another — as I believe Dunwoody Mom called it — a “stump speech.” He is a good speaker and a confident one. He is selling himself and the district, and his belief that he can succeed with this board.
The second question he asked board members, he says: “How much are you willing to sacrifice to achieve these goals?”
Wilson: Did every board member give for affirmative response to each of those two commitments?
“Yes,” said Thurmond.
Wilson: Do you believe yo can work with each and every member of this board?
Thurmond: “Yes, I think true leaders listen to those who may have opposing views, to learn from each and every person you meet and use that knowledge to lead in a positive way.”
As he told me the other day, Thurmond now has been meeting with “stakeholders.” And as he did for me, he is listing all the groups he has met with thus far; he again listed the chamber, the legislative delegation, a parents group. He again did not list teachers.
Now, Thurmond is addressing the missing textbooks cited in the SACS report. He said he was concerned about the missing books after what he read. “I read that somehow, through mismanagement, co-mission or omission, books were not purchased and no one could account for the missing $12 million.”
Wilson: Can you account for book and the $12 million?
“We can document where every book rests today, not just in which school, but in which classroom. And we can document every dime that was not spent.”
And Thurmond said it took only two days to track the books and money, so he was uncertain why SACS could not do it.
Also, Wilson asks Thurmond was SACS correct in its report that only 30 percent of schools had connectivity,
Thurmond says that was not true, that the system has 100 percent connectivity, although not all wireless.
Wilson is getting Thurmond to say as many ways possible that he can work with this board, each and every member. Thurmond repeated what he told me the other day: Board made courageous decision in hiring him.
I think that at some point Thurmond has to say that he can still succeed if this board goes. But Wilson is not letting that question come up asking him yet again “If this state board does not recommend removal, do you believe you can move district forward with thsi board?’
Thurmond goes to bat big time with this answer: “I just don’t believe it, I know it. I’ve staked a 30 year reputation personally on the fact that we can do it.”
Wilson: “Do you want them to give this board the opportunity to do it with you?”
Thurmond: “I see this as an opportunity for DeKalb to finally get it right.”
He talked about the racial divides that still haunt public education, citing his high school reunion where 40 years later, blacks and whites still went to separate sides. He suggests that racial divides split the board, and that they have to work to overcome them. He says the board has evolved but has a ways to go.
He says DeKalb parents have told him that they like their school board member. It’s the other ones who need to go.”What we can all do is evolve and grow,” he said, and see the district as a whole.
Thurmond’s rosy view of DeKalb and textbook-gate is now being punctured by Hackemeyer, who points out that the missing textbook money was not a fiction, but a concern of his predecessor Cheryl Atkinson. She asks whether he is aware some of the funds were shown to go to prior textbook purchases and legal fees. He says he is unaware of that.
Upon questioning, Thurmond says if the governor ousts the six members, he will have to deal with 15 board member since those six won’t be unelected. Those shadow board members — duly elected, ousted by the governor, fighting in court — would be impediments to his success.
“I can manage nine. I can’t manage 15,” he says. Thurmond warns that ousting the board will create more rancor and divides in DeKalb, which is already far from a peaceable kingdom right now. (He doesn’t say racial divides but that is clearly what he means.)
In questions, skeptical state board member Brian K. Burdette asked why, if Thurmond could track textbook money in a matter of two days, the board couldn’t do manage to do it in a matter of months? He also doubted that Thurmond could make the difference, that a single person could outweigh a dysfunctional board and years of entrenched inefficiencies.
“Even if you don’t believe I can succeed, give me the opportunity to fail,” said Thurmond, still in full campaign mode.
State board member Linda M. Zechmann questioned Thurmond’s opening story of getting a call from someone from DeKalb asking if he were interested in being superintendent. She said that there is a process for hiring a school chief and that didn’t seem to follow it.
Thurmond said DeKalb was in crisis, a house on fire, and they had to act outside convention. (I think we ought to pay attention to how Thurmond was hired; if it turns out to be a mistake, it may well be that this haste in hiring could be a factor.)
School board member Donna Edler is now speaking about deciding to run for school board in 2010 even though she was recently diagnosed with cancer and underwent a mastectomy that July. She took office six months later in the middle of radiation treatment. “That is part of the commitment I bring to this district,” she said. “Each of the board members here — I have learned a great deal from each of them.”
Edler is going through all that she learned from her fellow board members, including Copelin-Wood’s testimony today. Elder ends her speech by asking the state board to retain the DeKalb to give the community “a chance to heal.”
Hackemeyer is asking Edler about the two lawsuits filed by the DeKalb board to stop the state board hearing today and whether the board took those votes to sue in open session.
“No, we did not,” said Edler. Now, Hackemeyer is asking why the board is spending $150,000 to hire a law firm for governance training. Edler said she could not comment because that discussion occurred in executive session. (Not sure how discussing training — which is how Thurmond characterized the McKenna Long & Aldridge contract to me – required ducking behind closed doors.)
A board member is asking Edler how the board could defend going into closed session to discuss governance training. Edler says the law allows them to go into closed session for governance, but this was training. She does not make her case with her winding response.
“I get the feeling the board overuses lawyers,” said one state board member. Edler disagrees, saying the board hired McKenna Long & Aldridge for governance issues, not legal ones.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog