Updating State Board of Education hearing on whether to suspend DeKalb County school board:
The state Board of Education hearing on DeKalb opened this morning shortly after 8 with a statement from the DeKalb school board attorney Bob Wilson that his clients are challenging the constitutionality of the statue and objecting to the evidence on hearsay and relevance issues.
Wilson is the former DeKalb DA. He was one of the two people appointed by Gov. Perdue to investigate CRCT cheating. He is a noted attorney on education issues.
With DOE lawyer Jennifer Hackemeyer and Wilson making opening statements, the proceeding has the feel of a trial.
Before the formal start, a lawyer from the Attorney General’s Office takes up the issue of the lawsuits that DeKalb school board filed this week in both state and federal court.
She explains to the state board that the DeKalb Board of Education has filed lawsuits in both state and federal court. “The DeKalb Board believes the statute is unconstitutional. In the meantime, they have asked a state and federal judge to enjoin today’s proceedings. Two courts declined to halt today’s proceeding. We believe it is appropriate to go ahead as those lawsuits are happening.”
Now, Hackemeyer is laying out the state’s case against the DeKalb board, saying that the board has earned a failing grade on its report card for school board governance.
Hackemeyer says he DeKalb board violates policies with regard to staff and board communications. It fails to foster a culture consistent with the school system’s purpose and direction.
“Have your ears open to when the students are the primary focus of the DeKalb Board of Education. When student achievement primary focus of this board. At conclusion of this hearing, we will show that good cause exists for the state board to move forward with a recommendation to the governor to suspend,” she advises board.
In a surprise statement and one contrary to the position that the state board took at its January meeting, Hackemeyer says she is not recommending that the state seek the removal of the three newly elected DeKalb board members as they are not eligible under the statute to be suspended since they only joined the board last month.
In January, the state board said it could not worry about when DeKalb members were elected, that it had to treat the board as a whole. But based on Hackemeyer’s statements this morning, those three new members would remain on the DeKalb board if the state board votes to suspend. So, only six board members are now in danger of losing their seats.
Now, it’s Bob Wilson’s turn: He says significant progress has been made by the DeKalb board. He intends to show the majority of the board has changed over two years. “Ballot box is ahead of SACS.”
Citizens elected new members, who are not the source of many of the issues raised by SACS in its critical report of how DeKalb board operates, he says.
Wilson: “Much of the SACS report is about governance and leadership issues. You are going to find a new superintendent appointed whose background is in governance and leadership.”
Wilson notes that, “The school board, has, in fact, elected a new chair, The school board has, in fact, elected a new vice chair. ” Wilson notes that both the new chair and vice chair are newly elected members. “Neither of those gentleman was even on the board when the board was placed on probation.” They have put new leaders in place over that board. They have put new leadership over the administration.
“Those moves are clearly being done because SACS said you have a governance and leadership issue.” Wilson says some of the facts laid out in SACS report reflect misinformation. “Things that look very disturbing dealing with money and textbooks are wrong.”
Wilson is not saying that SACS got it wrong in its report but that SACS was given wrong and incorrect information.
He tells the state board, “You are going to find there is a new day…What that group has addressed is exactly what SACS has asked them to address.”
Wilson will show that some of the failings highlight by SACS predates the majority of the current school board. He tells the state board, “Keep an open mind. Listen to what is presented here. Believe in the good nature, the good faith of people. Make judgements based on what you see and hear in this hearing today.”
Now, Mark Elgart of SACS is detailing how a system is evaluated and reviewed. He says of 1,000 school systems, only one was placed on probation last year for governance. “That was DeKalb County.”
But in what might boost Wilson’s point that these problems predate this board, Elgart is outlining a decade-long pattern of poor governance. He says the problems have never really gone away. “The concerns of 2004 are replicated today around govnemance and leadership of this school system,” he said.
Question from Hackemeyer: Do you believe this school district can get off probation in a year: “The concerns here are not a political matter. It is a performance issue. What we witnessed thus far in the response over two months, they are treating it like a political matter, not a performance issue. If they are to be successful in the next 12 months, they must treat this as a performance issue. ”
Bob Wilson is challenging Elgart about the information-gathering process. Elgart says the interviews are the not sole source of information.
It is clear that Wilson is trying to create doubts about the validity of how information was gathered, the lack of names in the reports of those interviewed. He also is asking how much of the problem rests with the board.
“Some of the things in your report are administrative in nature and not necessarily under the board. Some of the problems were identified in this report really are not directed at the board,” Wilson said.
Wilson also says micromanaging issues are not uncommon to local school boards.
“It is uncommon when it is debilitating,” said Elgart.
Wilson: Do you recognize that that the report is “blind upon whom we can rely on for proven information?”
Elgart countered that the school system was fully aware of who SACS interviewed. SACS interviewed 36 staff members and six community members, along with the board. SACS reviewed all board documents, meeting agendas, videos of meetings, board minutes, emails, forensic audits, legal fees, annual audits, hiring policies.
“Then, we asked these people where we weren’t clear,” he said.
Why aren’t the names of interviewees in the report, asks Wilson.
Elgart says the report is meant for school system. He says the school system knows who “we interviewed, who conducted the interview. This is a report from us to the system. There is nothing hidden in that exchange. We don’t write the reports for the public. We are writing the report for this system. And we meet with system if they have questions to give them additional information.”
Wilson says the report contains “group innuendo…how do you give that reliability?”
Elgart denies hearsay is in the report. “There is no hearsay in this report,” says Elgart.
“What does SACS keep in terms of audio interview, notes of interview, summations? What do you have that backs that up?” said Wilson.
“We don’t take videos and transcription. We take notes,” said Elgart.
Wilson: Where would those notes be found?
“Those are work products of the reviewers. We don’t maintain those,” said Elgart.
“We have all this evidence we asked of them. No one is a sole determinant. The body of evidence that we depend upon is what is documented by the system,” said Elgart. “It has to be backed up by documented evidence, produced by the system for this review.”
Regarding what people said in the interviews, “SACS doesn’t have anything except what is in the report itself. You don’t have any records at SACS. You don’t have interview notes at SACS to back up this report?” Wilson said.
No, said Elgart. Notes are kept by interviewers but the notes are not maintained at SACS.
Wilson has struck a chord with the board with his hammering on how long DeKalb has had problems. A board member is now questioning whether the DeKalb board, some of whom were elected in the last two years, can be held accountable for all the governance issues?
Elgart says that SACS has seen an acceleration of problems in these last two years, not an improvement of problems.
Elgart says the district is clearly developing a plan to move forward.
Now, the state board is asking about when board members came aboard and length of service, reflecting Wilson’s contention that the current board can’t be blamed for some of the problems outlined in the SACS report. (Building on Elgart’s own point that DeKalb has been struggling with governance for a decade.)
Board is told that three joined last month. In January 2011, two new members joined the board. That means the other four have been on the board for four years or more — seems to satisfy some board members that most of the DeKalb board has served long enough to have some culpability for the current crisis.
Break at 10:18.
DOE official Louis Byars is now on the stand. A United States Military Academy at West Point graduate, Byars heads the DOE financial review division, which reviews financial records and accounting of local governing school boards and assists systems in training personnel in financial and budgetary accounting.
Byars is explaining DOE’s review findings on DeKalb. He said he reviewed the audits for the district. What are his concerns about DeKalb? He said his reviews show a history of concerns as reflected in letters in the DeKalb review files.
Specific concerns: “One of the things I look for is accounting controls, systems you have in place to prevent fraud..prevent mistakes from happening whatever the cause might be,” says Byars.
DeKalb does not have adequate controls, according to his office’s findings. Byars is going into deep detail on the flaws in how DeKalb reports and records its finances and financial data.
Now, Hackemeyer is talking about DeKalb’s deficit, a situation that is not allowed under the law and that the county has to submit a plan of correction to DOE.
Has DeKalb submitted its deficit reduction plan to you? Byars says it is due next week. He says that his office has told DeKalb that it must submit a plan.
How serious is DeKalb’s situation? “It is very serious. It is against the law. You are not supposed to be in deficit.”
Attorney: Would you be concerned if a system routinely underestimated its fixed costs?
“Yes, because if you continuously do that and you don’t anticipate, you can get surprised,” says Byars.
Wilson is cross examining Byars. Wilson notes that DeKalb has a new CFO who is working on the deficit elimination plan. “You know he is on it because you have communicated with him,” says Wilson.
Yes, said Byars, although he says that a DeKalb employee told him on the phone that it may be late. “But you know they are working on it?” asked Wilson. “Yes,” said Byars.In response to board questioning, Byars says DeKalb is one of 15 systems in the state on “high risk.” Byars said he has visited DeKalb and its new CFO Michael Perrone. (Perrone was chief financial officer for Duval County Public Schools before he took the DeKalb job last year.)
Pressed for his view of DeKalb, Byars said the system did not anticipate the drop in revenue and did not cut its expenditures. He would not agree that DeKalb has an “archaic” accounting system, as one board suggested, but it has one that makes more work.
Does DeKalb stand out for its troubles: It has more than 10 management letter comments, which means it has more issues than almost every other district in the state.
“This is a large system to have a deficit. Most of them are small, less than 5,000 students,” said Byars.
DeKalb has a budget of $800 million, not counting its federal funds, said Byars.
Back to issue of DeKalb being on high risk for two years or so.
Have you seen any urgency from DeKalb to come off of high risk and deal with the issues at hand? Byars mused aloud a second or two on this question and finally said, “no.”
Next up on the witness stand is supposed to be board member Sarah Copelin-Wood, but she can’t be found. Her coat is in room, but she is not. She may be in cafeteria, so recess is called for her to be collected. Hackemeyer says she does not want to call next witness, she wants to call Copelin-Wood as longest serving DeKalb board member.
She is found. Asked how long she has served. Since 2000. Asked to comment on board ethics policy. She is getting her glasses to read it, per lawyer’s request. (Getting her a seat to testify. Earlier, it was reported she wasn’t feeling well today. She confirms that from stand. She is not well today but showed up anyway. )
Have you ever been reprimanded for your conduct?
Hackemeyer: You were reprimanded in September 2010 for an insulting comment about superintendent and another employee.
“Yes,” she said.
Did she ever ask board to reprimand another member?
“Yes.” Who was it? Copelin-Wood doesn’t answer DOE attorney as the reprimand discussion occurred in executive session. Hackemeyer keeps pressing on this, although Copelin-Wood can’t provide details as to when it happened.
Wilson objects to Hackemeyer’s line of questioning, saying if the reprimand occurred in executive session Copelin-Wood cannot testify about it. He is protecting the “privilege as the law allows.” Hackemeyer agrees to abandon this line of questions and move on, and her next question is about adoption of code of ethics in 2010 and amendments made in 2012.
She is asking Copelin-Wood about indicted Superintendent Crawford Lewis and under what circumstances he left his job. Copelin-Wood tells Hackemeyer that the Attorney General would be better able to answer those questions. But Hackemeyer says that, as the longest serving board member, she thought Copelin-Wood could respond.
Hackemeyer is recounting DeKalb’s last three superintendents, including the fractious and controversial search and hiring of Cheryl Atkinson. Wilson is objecting to Hackemeyer’s questions, including one on “confidential leaks” about the other candidates in that search. Wilson says there was never any proof of “confidential leaks,” not does he see the relevance of Dr. Atkinson’s hiring. Hackemeyer is rephrasing her questions.
Hackemeyer gave Copelin-Wood an email from May 15, 2012, and asked her to identify it. “It is information from the Greystone Park Community Association that officially partnered with McNair High School…I sent it as president of the Greystone Park Community Association.”
The email was sent to the high school principal about a scholarship ceremony. The Greystone Park Community Association wanted to present its annual scholarship to students at the ceremony. “It had nothing to do with the school system, other than it was a school,” said Copelin-Wood.
Hackemeyer contends that this email was a violation of the board communication policy. Wilson objects, saying Hackemeyer is misstating the policy as this email did not deal with school district policy.
Copelin-Wood said she disagreed. In sending the email, she was not acting on district business, but as a community member asked by her association to contact the principal about giving students scholarships.
Break for lunch and I am creating new blog as this one is too long.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled