The DeKalb County Board of Education has hired a law firm to represent it when it meets with the state board of education about its accreditation problems.
Without comment during the special called Feb. 1 meeting, the county school board voted 6-1 to hire the law firm of Wilson, Morton & Downs to represent it. Board member Nancy Jester voted against the measure and Marshall Orson was absent.
School board chairman Gene Walker said the law firm will help the board “address a number of the [AdvancED] issues that we are to respond to and maybe some legal ramifications we are not aware of. We wanted to get an expert in dealing with a number of different type governance issues.”
AdvancED, the agency that accredits the DeKalb County School District, placed it on probation in December after an investigation prompted by parents, stakeholders, school staff members and others raised concerns about the district’s operations.
The school district was given 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.
In January, the state board of education passed a consent decree to allow the DeKalb board until Feb. 21 to make “significant progress” on issues identified in the AdvancED report.
Walker said the school district would be successful in addressing the AdvancED concerns and maintaining its accreditation.
“Ain’t no doubt in my mind,” Walker said. “We will persevere. We’ll do what we have to do. We’ll do it for our children and for our county. We’re going to be all right.”
DeKalb leaders, businessmen and residents are not so sure, said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators.
“There’s a lot of concern in the business community—realtors especially, among legislators, county commissioners—about the school district losing its accreditation,” Schutten said. “There’s deep, deep concern about this.”
One concern is about the future employment of school district Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, Schutten said.
“There’s concern about the speculation that Dr.Atkinson is leaving due to the timing with the [AdvancED report] and going back before the [state] board of education,” Schutten said. “Everybody’s speculating based on the number of meetings [board members are] having in executive session that they’re negotiating a departure for Dr. Atkinson. Nobody will speak on the record but all signs are pointing to that.
“It’s just a very frustrating time for everybody in DeKalb County right now,” Schutten said.
Walker would not address Atkinson’s future employment.
“I can’t ever speak to you about a personnel matter,” he said. “The superintendent is personnel.”
When asked why the district could not handle the AdvancED concern in-house, Walker said, “If we had felt we could do it in-house we would be looking in that direction. We feel that we’re trying to galvanize the resources necessary to help us be successful in responding to those [AdvancED] requirements.”
The school board, which had five meetings during the week of Jan. 28 is going to have “a whole lot more meetings,” Walker said.
The board has scheduled three meeting per week until Feb. 21, when it is set to go back before the state board of education. The meeting will address “every aspect of the [AdvancED] requirements in preparation for going to the state,” Evans said.
In a letter to the board, Robert Wilson stated that his law firm would “put forth our best efforts to address the matter…to secure the most desirable resolution possible.”
“We will do everything in our power, within professional ethical standards, to represent the district’s interests,” Wilson stated.
Walker said he did not know exactly what the Wilson law firm would do for the district.
“If I knew specifically what they’re going to do I wouldn’t have hired them,” Walker said. “They are the experts. They will share with us expertise that will help us and I don’t know quite what that will be. I expect it to be useful.
“They’re going to help us assess many of the concerns that were raised by [AdvancED] and help us see elements of it that we did not see,” Walker said. “No board member, to my knowledge, has ever violated one of [AdvancEd’s] standards. We’re not talking about breaking the law. We’re talking about standards that many of us don’t see the implications of the so-called infractions that we may have made.”