So that blogs from this endless state hearing aren’t interminable, I am creating a third blog on the final hours. So, the entire day is spread across three blogs. Read them only when you time and coffee. There is a lot of staid stuff and cliche comments. I think textbook-gate has been cleared up, but not sure clarity was achieved in other areas.
If the taxpayers of DeKalb are paying the board attorneys by the hour, dig into your pockets for some change to spare. This hearing is going into hour 14.
The hearing is to determine whether the state board will recommend dissolution of the DeKalb board, save the three new members. (See first blog for how state is not looking to kick off those three newly elected members. The second blog features new school chief Michael Thurmond’s comments.)
The new Chief Financial Officer Michael Perrone is testifying. Interestingly, Perrone says he was never asked by SACS about the textbook spending controversy, which he could have explained. He says the only legal fees incurred were to pay for the attorney for entering into the textbook lease. Then, the system decided to get out of this lease.
DOE attorney Hackemeyer is delving into this textbook issue, making me wonder if the state has any other financial issues on which to focus. I have been surprised today how narrow the state focus seems to be today.
I thought that the state would have stacks of questionable issues, but Hackemeyer is pretty much sticking to what SACS focused on in its report — using a line of credit for purpose of buying textbooks and used the money to close the deal rather than pay for it out of general operating funds.
Hackemeyer: Is this a good way to purchase textbooks:
Perrone: “I would say part of the reason of the reason we closed it down we didn’t think it was a good idea.”
In closing out the lease, did DeKalb discuss the impact on student achievement?
“One of the reasons was the e-book initiative,” Perrone said.
Hackemeyer: Does it concern you take money from one source — a lease for textbooks — and then use it money to pay for previous invoices of textbook for previous years?
Only in the DeKalb post since March, Perrone says it wasn’t clear why DeKalb chose to do that. He says there probably were good reasons for this when it was first considered, but it was long before his arrival in DeKalb.
The state board chair Barbara Hampton appears to have a grasp on this, likening it to getting mortgage and rolling the closing costs into the loan.
Board member Mary Sue Murray is asking Perrone what he thinks went on in DeKalb to create a deficit. Perrone said the district wasn’t nimble enough in adjusting fixed costs as revenues began to fall.
Board member Allen Rice is pressing Perrone on why DeKalb went to the lease on the textbooks. The interest rate on the lease is 3.537 percent.
State board member Brian Burdette asked Perrone a critical question in my view: Why did this cloud hover over DeKalb so long? Why wasn’t it explained in such detail before this? Perrone says the information was given to the board, but Burdette said the DeKalb board couldn’t explain to the stated board four weeks ago what happened with the textbooks. In general, the state board seems reassured about the text-gate.
Now, former interim Ramona Tyson is testifying. She is detailing all the ways that DeKalb is taking the SACS report to heart and making changes. She says DeKalb has been seeking expertise and guidance across the state. She is a clear speaker.
She says all schools have wireless connectivity in every single media center. Now, DeKalb is trying to make entire campus — grounds cafeteria– so kids can use laptops outside. Expects completion by September.
Tyson is asked directly about technology since SACS painted a far bleaker picture of technology in DeKalb schools.
Was technology report detailing all these plans available when SACS came to its review in November of 2012? Yes, it was available, even on the district web site, says Tyson. It is still on the web site. So, why didn’t SACS see it?
Tyson has gone through each of the SACS’ requirements and given progress updates. Burdette is asking why some of these SACS recommendations she addressed are from a March 2011 review.
Why weren’t they acted on before now?
Tyson said some of DeKalb’s responses to the SACS recommendations began months ago but will take a long time to put into place. Burdette wonders why the state board wasn’t told at its January meeting that DeKalb had, in fact, begun to respond to the SACS recommendations and was making progress.
The board is clearly impressed with Tyson and the headway DeKalb is making on some SACS recommendations.
Board member Scott Johnson asked, “Who lit the fire?”
While being careful in her answers on why DeKalb did not respond in full force to the SACS report until recently, Tyson suggested that it was because Cheryl Atkinson did not mobilize a response team or choose to have someone contact Mark Elgart.
Tyson says that when Michael Thurmond arrived, he created a sense of urgency and told her “to get to Mr. Elgart yesterday.”
Now, the remaining board members are testifying, starting with new board member and newly crowned board chair Melvin Johnson. The school board attorney Bob Wilson wants him to make the point that this board can work together and play nice. And he is doing so.
Johnson says he has worked in the school system when it was primarily white, and he can work with diverse people. He says he and new vice chair Jim McMahan already have a connection.
He asks the state board to let the current board to stay intact. “I want to make sure each and every decision is directed a student achievement. I feel there will be a disruption if new board members come on board.”
Johnson also feels that the DeKalb board members were duly elected and that kicking them out will alienate the voters who elected them.
“If we keep the board together, we have a better chance and lessen the disruption in the community. Rather than increasing division, we could increase collaboration if we kept them on the board.”
Board member Allen Rice asks Johnson asked about role of race in DeKalb since he brought it up. “My experience is put it on the table… if you have concerns, talk about them,” said Johnson.
I am not sure of the connection but Johnson then says that voters love their local school board members and will be upset if those members are ousted. ‘They have their reason for why they voted for them,” said Johnson. “If their vote is denied, it is impossible for them not to have feelings about it.”
But some state board members are skeptical that retaining the current board is in the best interest of the students and that the disruption caused by removing them would be divisive, noting that the DeKalb board remains so divided that it took two votes to get a board chair elected.
Go Linda M. Zechmann. She is asking my question. Why did the the DeKalb board and its new superintendent go into executive session to discuss hiring a law firm for governance training? It seems clearly outside the parameters of what boards can go behind closed doors to do, which include lawsuits, real estate and personnel issues.
Attorney Wilson is answering that the closed session dealt with legal proceedings including the hearing in front of the board. Wilson there was advice from counsel that what they were going into dealt with legal matter to extent it needed to be executive session. Sounds like lousy advice since the board was discussing hiring a law firm for GOVERNANCE training at a cost of $150,000. That does not fit the criteria for shutting out the public and media.
DeKalb board member Pam Speaks is up, pledging to do whatever is necessary to improve schools for children.
Burdette is asking whether this board can work together or whether the dysfunction is too deep to be overcome.
“We have to work together to right whatever wrongs we have been accused of, we know we are guilty of. Darn it, just do it,” she said.
Now, board member Jesse Jay Cunningham is speaking about his seven years on the board and his business experience. “It has trained me and showed me how to work with different people and different cultures,” he said.
He noted that he won his first school board election with 54 percent and his second with 64 percent. His community knows, he said, that “I am for the kids.”
Cunningham said, “We have to talk about race. We have to talk about resources.”
Cunningham says the board now has the nine right members and superintendent to make change and improvements. “Give us that chance,” he told the board.
Under questioning from DOE attorney Jennifer Hackemeyer, Cunningham said his pizza business did sell pizzas to schools under partnerships that predated his board election. Did you see how it could be perceived to be a conflict of interest to sell pizzas to school while you are on the school board for those schools?
“Yes, I did,” said Cunningham.
State board member Mike Royal is asking Cunningham why in his seven years he didn’t “stand on the rooftops and say we have to change this culture?”
Cunningham said he did try to make changes, “but you have to have open ears.” His board members were not willing to listen.
Now, Burdette is asking: It could be stated you are part of dysfunctional conflict. Do you believe change is possible?
Yes, he said, saying that now his fellow board members and school chief will listen. “That makes the biggest difference. We can disagree but we can sit down and have a conversation.”
Burdette: “Are you going to sustain it?”
Cunningham says the board will be able to sustain it.
“We have to make that change. I don’t want to be lie Clayton and some of these other counties that lost business and housing went down. But we have to start with our kids first, and I’m committed to that,” said Cunningham.
New board member and vice chair Jim McMahan says the board has grown in his six weeks on the board. He says that he believes board can work together.
(The end of this meeting is turning into a lovefest as each board member expresses admiration for all the others.)
Burdette is asking again whether this new-found spirit of collaboration will last. McMahan is saying, “Yes.”
Gene Walker is now in front of the board and talking about the board response to the SACS report and whether it reflected any urgency. He says that he asked Dr. Atkinson to put Tyson in charge of the SACS response and she did. Walker said that Atkinson was then called away to deal with her father who was terminally ill.
Walker says that he wanted the board to move forward for the sake of the students. He again told the state board that it ought to look at the board’s actual record. He said there is no evidence that the board every obstructed the school chief. Walker said the superintendent was able to fire whom she wanted and hire whom she wanted. “Whatever resources she asked for, we gave her,” said Walker.
Walker noted that the district audit never found any missing money. There is no evidence of criminal activity by the board. He pleaded with the state board to let the board do the job it was elected to do.
Hackemeyer asked Walker to look at recent board agendas and point out any items that deal with student achievement or SACS related actions.
Her goal is apparent, to make it appear that the DeKalb board did not make student achievement a priority. She said the board didn’t deal with student achievement at all. Walker noted that many of those meetings were executive sessions where the board would not talk about student achievement but litigation, personnel or real estate.
But you could argue that every executive session on hiring a school chief is related to student achievement. (I personally found this line of questioning a bit of a stretch. The board discussed its budget, which I would argue has a big impact on student achievement. It weakens the state’s case to manufacture failings when there ought to be enough real ones to make the point.)
Walker is now answering board questions. Royal is asking why he didn’t take the leadership to lead DeKalb to improve academics. Walker says from he was sitting and from what he was seeing, he didn’t think the board was dysfunctional. The board was meeting with Elgart. “I though we were making progress. So the urgency you see, I don’t see,” he said.
Rice is asking if DeKalb is a magnet for lawyers and lawsuits. “I know things that we have to deal with a lay person can’t address them. They are legal issues,” he said.
Does it trouble you that your system is spending millions on legal fees, asked Larry Winter. Yes, said Walker.
Winter is now asking if DeKalb understands when they can legally go into executive session. He is puzzled when Walker says the board can go into executive session to discuss its own governance issues and evaluations.
Astonished, Winter says that DeKalb seems to have a different view of what constitutes legitimate reasons to go into executive session than the rest of the state. He then asks, “Do you believe it is appropriate to go into executive session to discuss $160,000 for training?”
Walker again said that their lawyer told them they should go behind closed doors to discuss a training program.
Now, DeKalb board member Nancy Jester introduces herself as the “mad mommy brigade..I don’t own my seat…If I am not in this seat, I am not going anywhere. I am invested. I have three small children.”
She cautions that what she will say will make her unpopular in the hearing room.
“We are failing our mission. We have to talk about that. That is not just a DeKalb problem. It is a state problem,” she said.
Saying she has often felt marginalized on the board, Jester said she is finally being heard and credited Michael Thurmond. “Can it be sustained? I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball.”
“So goes DeKalb so goes the state. We are a harbinger for the rest of the state,” she said, referencing the demographic shifts in the county.
“If you can figure out what to do in DeKalb, you have a path to figure out what to do in the rest of the state.”
Jester says there are many letters from the public saying get rid of the board but keep her, letters that say they love Nancy Jester. (I am getting a sense here why her board colleagues may not listen to her at times.)
She says that SACS focuses on adult issues rather than the students kids. You can have a school board of distinction, but the student achievement can be abysmal, she said.
“It’s always about these adults and the relationships,” she said.
If DeKalb gets six new people, they are going to be driven by the administration.
I welcome Jester’s candor after all the Hallmark Card sentiments today.
She is talking now about why she opposed Thurmond’s hiring. “Not that I thought we needed to hire a professional educator, but I didn’t know much about Mr. Thurmond. When he came in, I didn’t like him. I really didn’t like him. I am not saying we are going to go color coordinate our outfits or anything. But he has corralled the crazy.”
She says DeKalb has to get equity right. “We are not one-size-fits-all. We have some very high performing schools.” Using her favorite line — often on her blog — “Things don’t teach children. Teachers teach children.”
Her final thought: Changing boards won’t make a difference. “We have to understand in DeKalb, from Arabia Mountain, to Fernbank, to Dunwoody High School, they love their children. And they want better things for them. I am working for those moms.”
Burdette disagrees with Jester that it’s not largely a governance issue causing DeKalb’s woes.
She responds, “You could have a board as ornery with each other as they come and have perfect student achievement. We have boards that get along and have crappy student achievement.”
Burdette countered: “Right now, you’ve got to concentrate on fixing DeKalb. Honestly, it doesn’t seem that’s where your focus is.”
Last up is newly elected Marshall Orson. He agrees with Jester that there’s too little attention to student outcomes. He is praising Thurmond — “smart, decisive, deliberative.’
Darn, Wilson is now calling back Thurmond. But at least the state board is giving him only 5 minutes.
“I need this board,” he says.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog