The DeKalb County Board of Education faced prosecution-style questioning when it appeared before the Georgia Board of Education, which was charged with deciding the fate of the DeKalb board.
The hearing was triggered by a relatively new state law that requires school districts that are under accreditation probation to appear before the state education board which will then recommend to the governor whether to remove the local school board.
DeKalb school board members and personnel were interrogated about district finances, legal fees, availability of textbooks, micromanagement and school board leadership.
Jennifer Hackemeyer, general counsel for the Georgia Department of Education, began the hearing by saying, “The evidence will show that the DeKalb school board receives a failing grade.”
However, Bob Wilson, an attorney representing the DeKalb school board, said change is in the air in the county.
“The evidence today will show you some things of the past that are not pleasant,” Wilson told the state board. “We’re going to show you some other things. There is significant progress being made.”
One change has been in the makeup of the DeKalb school board.
“In the past two years, the majority was changed,” Wilson said. “The ballot box was ahead of SACS.”
SACS, or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is the agency that accredits the school district through its parent company, AdvancED.
“The citizens vote for change and that ought to matter,” Wilson said. “Most of what you see today will not be related to the majority of the board.”
Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, testified that each year 5000 school districts renew or seek accreditation.
“Only one school in the nation was placed on probation for governance issues,” Elgart said. “That would be the DeKalb county schools.”
Elgart said the DeKalb school district has experienced a “decade of decline in student performance.”
When asked about his confidence that the school district will move off of probation, Elgart said he hopes “the system can begin to identify plans that are directly related to improving performance.”
“The concerns here are not a political matter,” Elgart said. “The concerns here are a performance issue. What we’ve witnessed so far…[is] they’re treating it like a political matter, not a performance issue.
“It’s going to take strong focused leadership,” Elgart said.
Newly hired interim Superintendent Mike Thurmond said he will provide that leadership.
This school board made a very courageous decision: they hired me,” Thurmond said. “And I compliment them for it.
“I am responsible for fixing everything …when I raised my hand,” Thurmond said. “I’ve staked literally a 30-year repution, personally that the school district can be fixed.”
“I see this as an opportunity not just DeKalb for Georgia to get it right,” Thurmond said.
Lisa Kinnemore, a member of the Georgia Board of Education (GBOE) from Stone Mountain, said she is a product of the DeKalb school system when “it was a premiere district in the state and the United States.”
“I would like to see that caliber put back,” Kinnemore said.
“I’m glad they decided to bring you on,” she told Thurmond. “It is my hope and prayer as well that you can have a full board behind you.”
GBOE member Barbara Hampton told Thurmond, “If there is anybody that can do this job, it’s you. You are uniquely qualified.”
At 5 p.m. Feb. 21 the hearing was still going on. It was unclear when it would end.