By Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
After a grueling 14-hour hearing that lasted until 10 p.m. Thursday night, the Georgia Board of Education voted unanimously to recommend suspending six of the nine members of the DeKalb County school board.
“I just think the culture of poor governance that has been sustained over years has to be broken now,” said state board member Brian Burdette. “And I don’t think there’s any way to do it short of replacing some of these board members.”
Jennifer Hackemeyer, Department of Education general counsel, asked that the suspension not affect the three board members who took office this year.
The rambling hearing sounded at times like a legal proceeding, and at other moments like a confessional. It covered everything from financial mishaps to board member ethics.
At stake are the futures of 99,000 students in Georgia’s third-largest school district.
Mark Elgart, the man whose authority led to this day, summarized the problem early in the hearing: DeKalb was the only school system in this country that his accreditation agency placed on probation for governance issues last year after reviewing 1,000 other systems.
“There’s been a decade of continued ineffective governance” during which academics have been “fairly stagnant,” Elgart said. Instead of acting with urgency to fix things, the local school board has been “treating it like a political matter, not a performance issue.”
“The majority of their debates,” he said, “have little or nothing to do with student achievement.”
Elgart, as president and CEO of AdvancEd, oversees the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, DeKalb’s accrediting agency. Under a 2011 state law, SACS’ decision to place DeKalb on probation forced the state school board to hold the hearing. Their recommendation gives Gov. Nathan Deal the authority to suspend the local board.
DeKalb’s attorney, Robert Wilson, tried to undermine the credibility of SACS and its December report justifying probation. The 20-page document reported threatening and abusive behavior by board members and a squandering of money that should have gone to the classroom. It quoted no source by name, but Elgart said every anecdote was corroborated.
But Wilson, a former DeKalb district attorney, said the information could not be independently corroborated, and tried to get the report dismissed, saying it was full of “misinformation,” “group innuendo,” “group suggestion,” “rank hearsay” and “double hearsay.”
With the help of testimony from several school system administrators, Wilson went on to argue that a troubling finding by SACS about textbooks was untrue.
The report says the school system borrowed $12 million to buy new textbooks, “yet numerous interviews revealed that no one could identify any school that had received new textbooks.”
Mike Perrone, DeKalb’s chief financial officer, said DeKalb borrowed $25 million to buy books, but returned $13 million to the bank because of budget cutting. Kathy Howe, a deputy superintendent, said she had receipts and spreadsheets that indicated the other $12 million was spent on books.
SACS reported some fundamental financial problems that were corroborated: The school district has spent more money than it has, and has weak financial controls that raised concern among state auditors. Louis Byars, director of financial review at the Georgia Department of Education, said auditors identified weaknesses that leave the district open to fraud.
The board kept spending as revenues dropped until there was a $14.4 million deficit last year. (Perrone said in an interview that the figure is likely to rise to $16 million once the numbers are audited.)
Byars said DeKalb is among 15 of Georgia’s 180 school districts deemed a financial “high risk.”
The school board’s new chairman, Melvin Johnson, said removing the board would “erode” public confidence. “They believe in the individuals they voted on,” he said. The former DeKalb schools administrator said race differences may be causing some of the division, and the county needs to have an honest conversation about it.
“Race is something that some of us deny,” Johnson said. “Some of us won’t put it on the table.”
Michael Thurmond, the former Georgia labor commissioner recently named DeKalb schools’ interim superintendent, also said race was an issue, and said he wanted the chance to address it. He appealed to the state board not to vote for suspension.
But the arguments did not sway the 11 members of the state board who were present. (One participated by phone.)
State board member Mike Royal said the DeKalb board sounded sincere in wanting to reform, but said he doubted they’d stick with it if the threat of suspension were lifted. DeKalb sued earlier this week in federal and Georgia courts to stop the process, alleging the 2011 law is unconstitutional. Board members in Sumter County filed a similar suit, and a Fulton County Superior Court judge issued a restraining order against the state.
A hearing on the DeKalb case scheduled in Fulton Superior Court on Feb. 28 could restrain the governor from acting on the recommended suspensions.
“I hope it doesn’t drag out in litigation, I pray,” Royal said. “But I can’t make my decision based on the fear of litigation.”
Who can stay, who might go
The six DeKalb County school board members recommended for suspension:
- Eugene Walker
- Nancy Jester
- Jesse “Jay” Cunningham
- Sarah Copelin-Wood
- Pam Speaks
- Donna Edler
- Marshall Orson
- Melvin Johnson
- Jim McMahan
The story so far
It’s been a tumultuous week for DeKalb County’s school board.
Monday, Eugene Walker announced he would give up the board chairmanship, and the board voted to hire a law firm at $150,000 to review the school board’s “governance” and recommend changes.
Tuesday, the board filed a suit to prevent Thursday’s hearing by the Georgia Board of Education. A 2011 state law allows the governor to remove boards in school systems on probation, if the state board recommends it. The suit challenges that law.
Wednesday, a judge denied the request for a restraining order to block the state board hearing, but scheduled a hearing on DeKalb’s challenge to the state law. The board selected a new chairman, Melvin Johnson, by a 7-2 vote.
Thursday, board members and their attorney, Bob Wilson, made their case to the state board of education as to why they should not be removed from office.
The state board of education will make a recommendation to Gov. Nathan Deal. Deal will decide whether to remove current board members and appoint new ones.
Thursday, Feb. 28, a hearing is scheduled in Fulton Superior Court. The DeKalb school district will ask a judge to consider a restraining order against the state to prevent members’ removal.
Quotes from the hearing
“Let’s end the madness. Let me do the work and get the job done. … I’m there to clear the deck to deal with some of the issues that have festered for decades.”
— Michael Thurmond,DeKalb County school superintendent.
“We will show that good cause exists for the state board to move forward with a recommendation to the governor to suspend.”
— Jennifer Hackemeyer,lawyer for the state Department of Education
“You are going to find there is a new day. … What that group has addressed is exactly what SACS has asked them to address.”
— Bob Wilson,attorney representing DeKalb’s school board
“They’re treating it like a political matter, not a performance issue. … The majority of their debates have little or nothing to do with student achievement.”
— Mark Elgart, head of AdvancEd, parent company of SACS, the accrediting agency that placed DeKalb on probation.