State gives DeKalb school board 30 days to improve

The DeKalb County school board has 30 days to make significant improvement on the district’s issues or face suspension by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Board members attended a Jan. 14 hearing in front of the state Board of Education (BOE) to explain why the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) was placed on accreditation probation Dec. 17, 2012, by accrediting agency AdvancED.

State Board of Education members voted unanimously on a consent decree to allow the DeKalb board until Feb. 21 to make “significant progress” on issues identified in the AdvancED report. Additionally, the decree allows the state board to convene a hearing at any time if it feels the DeKalb board isn’t making progress, as long as it provides two weeks notice.

AdvancED conducted an investigation of DCSD after parents, stakeholders, school staff members and others raised concerns about the district’s operations.

As a result of the investigation, the accrediting agency placed the district on probation and presented DCSD with a list of action items, including better financial oversight, improving technology in schools, improving communications at all levels within the district and additional board training.

Mark Elgart, president of AdvancED, said if the district does not make significant improvement on the action items listed that loss of accreditation is “imminent.”

Georgia Department of Education attorney Jennifer Hackmeyer told state board members that the DCSD board has failed to establish policies to ensure effective administration of the district and its schools.

Additionally, Hackmeyer said the DCSD board has failed to operate responsibly and ensure that all areas of the district have the “autonomy” to meet goals for achievement and instruction.

Board Chairman Eugene Walker, a retired DCSD associate superintendent who has served on the board since 2008, assured state board members that the DCSD board fully realizes the seriousness of the situation.

“The members of the DeKalb Board of Education come before you to urge your support,” Walker said. “We are wholeheartedly committed to taking the appropriate steps necessary to address each of these actions…before this committee reconvenes.”

All members of the (DCSD) board were present at the hearing and said they are committed to making progress on the action items requested by AdvancED. DCSD officials said Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson was unable to attend due to a family emergency.

Several board members including Walker, Pamela Speaks and Jay Cunningham, said that although they supports the requested action items, they don’t agree with AdvancED’s interpretation of the issues mentioned in its report.

State board members repeatedly asked DCSD board members how–if they had been through training–they allowed the district to reach such a critical juncture.

“I think training is the key here and the fix. Everyone is saying they had the training and if they had, it didn’t work, because we’re here,” state BOE member Brian Burdette said.

Burdette chided DCSD board members for disagreeing with AdvancED’s findings or interpretations.

AdvancED “is an independent reporting agency, so you can’t say that you disagree with them,” Burdette said. “The problem is, they were there watching, and you didn’t follow the rules as board members. As a board member you’re supposed to know what you can and cannot do.”

DeKalb County resident Betsy Parks said she was frustrated with the answers DeKalb board members gave to the state board. Parks said board members presented the best case they had but it still wasn’t good enough.

“Not knowing that something is wrong is not an excuse,” Parks said.

Parks, who started an online petition calling for Deal’s removal of the DeKalb board, said if the state board does recommend the DCSD board’s suspension, it would send a message.

“It sends a message to the community that we haven’t done our due diligence. It gets them to rethink how we elect our officials and communicate with the schools,” Parks said.

Resident Caroline Lord said the DeKalb board wasn’t “well-prepared” for the hearing. Lord said that giving the board only 30 days to address the issues was “aggressive” but it showed that the state board had the best interest of DeKalb County’s children at heart.

“They respected the need not to prolong the situation for our children,” Lord said.

Rep. Scott Holcomb attended the hearing, which lasted more than four hours. Holcomb said he thought the state board was “clearly prepared and definitely did their homework.”

“I wasn’t completely satisfied with the presentation from the DeKalb school board,” Holcomb said.

The DCSD board is responsible for managing a nearly $1 billion budget. In recent years, the district has faced significant budget shortfalls, most recently a nearly $80 million shortfall in 2012.

“If you’re on a board, that’s one of the key things that you do, look over financial statements and approve budgets,” Holcomb said. “I’m concerned whether the individuals that caused this crisis have the ability to correct it.”

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