On Feb. 8, 2013, Mike Thurmond became the superintendent of the DeKalb County School District. In the past year, Thurmond, a former Georgia labor commissioner, has dealt with accreditation probation, a school shooting, a contentious lawsuit and even a snow storm.
The following is the first of a two-part interview by Andrew Cauthen, news editor for The Champion Newspaper.
You started with the school board situation. You had the school shooting. You had AdvancED and you had the snowstorm. How would you describe your year in light of all of these pretty significant events?
Let’s not forget the budget deficit. Let’s not forget we had a $15 million budget deficit. The first challenge was…the hearing at the state board, then the removal of the board. There was a period of time…when we didn’t have a quorum. And, of course, the deficit and then, of course, SACS and the potential of losing accreditation and the shooting at McNair and most recently, the ice storm.
It’s been an eventful year. We’ve made, I think, significant progress, although there are many challenges ahead. But I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a wonderful experience for me and probably the most rewarding experience of my professional career, particularly my public career.
Why do you think this has been the most rewarding? Why would you say that?
I now understand why men and women…are called to be educators. I understand now why they answer the call. It’s inspiring to be surrounded by 100,000 young people every day. You know that you have potential to impact them in a positive way.
How would you describe the state of the school district now that a year has gone by?
We are progressing. Obviously moving in the right direction. And people throughout the district–north and south, east and west–are rallying to the flag, so to speak. Our “near death experience” helped to refocus the district on trying to improve educational opportunities for all the children in our county.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge over the year?
Helping and encouraging others to believe again in this district, rebuilding a sense of trust and hope and developing a positive outlook for all the internal and external stakeholders—that’s been the greatest challenge because people have been damaged in very significant ways psychologically and otherwise by recent events. Rebuilding that has been and continues to be an ongoing challenge.
Everybody is not a believer yet. A case in point is the Druid Hills cluster. How do you reach those who are still nonbelievers?
You have to continue to be successful. There are those who are “nonbelievers” but it’s not without rational evaluation. There’s reason for people not to believe yet, not to fully trust in the district or in me, for that matter. I clearly understand that and that’s part of the motivation to try to continue improvement. We’re not there yet by any stretch of the imagination. Thank God, we’re not where we were, but I also recognize that we’re not where we need to be if we’re going to earn the right to be considered one of the elite public school districts in the state or even in the nation.
What’s been your biggest disappointment?
I came in with my eyes wide open. To be honest with you, there was low expectation for me as a superintendent not having any experience in leading a public education institution prior this. So my eyes were wide open.
You mean the expectations that other people had for you?
Yes. That created a great opportunity for me to be successful.
So you think you’re successful?
So far I think we’ve been successful. I’m judged by the success of the district. We’re no longer in deficit. We have a balanced budget. We’re building a fund balance. I think that people can’t argue that that’s not successful, from a financial stability point of view. We’ve elevated our accreditation status from being on probation to being off probation—you can’t really argue with that and say that’s not progress. On just those two items alone there’s irrefutable evidence that we’re moving in the right direction.
What have you gotten wrong?
I underestimated the emotional and psychological trauma that employees have suffered throughout the district, and the pain that still remains, to be honest with you—the fear that just dominated the psychology of an organization….there was a tremendous amount of fear among the employees and it kind of manifested itself in hopelessness and haplessness. Having to eradicate that and rebuild and restore and refresh—I underestimated how much time and energy I would have to invest to address those issues.
You go into schools a lot, of course. What do you see when you walk into schools?
I see myself. I see myself in the eyes of the children. I just see unlimited potential of the students and I see dedicated employees who really want what’s best. I see parents who are investing all of their time and resources available to support their children. That’s what inspires me.
There are a lot of people who say, and probably with good reason, that the school district has not been very concerned about schools, has not been focused on students in the past. Do you think that’s true and have we turned the page on that?
I think it’s true that people believe that’s true and not without some evidence that might have led to those opinions. Once you resolve these extraneous issues—the adult issues—that has given us more time and space to refocus and reinvest our time and energy on our children and on teaching and learning. When you have ongoing controversies on all levels, not just in the county but at the state level in the courts, it’s very difficult to focus on teaching and learning. For example, if you settle a Heery lawsuit that frees up bandwidth—emotional and psychological–that now can be refocused and redirected on teaching and learning….
Where do you see the school district in five years?
Immediately after the announcement from SACS that we were no longer on probation, I met with our senior team within 48 hours and this is what I told them: That’s yesterday’s news. Ultimately the DeKalb County School District will be judged on whether or not we can improve academic achievement and increase our graduation rate. Now we must focus like a laser beam…on increasing academic performance [and] improving our graduation rates. Those two things will ultimately shape the reputation of this school district and any other school district. I’m convinced that we’ve been working on that throughout the year away from the media—the spotlight of the media—and I’m expecting, even this year, to see some incremental improvements in both of those two categories.
There are some people who think our kids aren’t capable of doing any better.
Absolutely. We’re going to prove them wrong. The devil is a liar. Always has been, always will be. And what we have to do is put our young people in a position where they can be more successful. When we are not focused on teaching and learning, when we aren’t good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars, when we allow other agendas to subordinate the agenda around children, then that impacts on their ability to achieve.
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