Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond met with a crowd of about 100 parents and taxpayers in Dunwoody Sunday evening to discuss the state of the school system and assure stakeholders that he was listening to their concerns.
Of those concerns, many voiced similar sentiments to those heard in other parts of the county on previous occasions and Thurmond stuck to the same answers about accountability, efficiency and commitment to doing what's right for the children. He stated that he has often heard from people that they feel sorry for him for what a big job he has ahead of him. He said that he does not see it as a negative, but as a positive because he has trained his entire career for an opportunity like this one. He said that failure is not an option and that he will do whatever it takes to make sure the district accreditation is not lost and that DeKalb's reputation for a stellar school system will be restored.
Thurmond has not unveiled a plan for how he will accomplish those goals, however, as there is not a full board of education in place for him to present a plan. That part is currently in the hands of the Governor Nathan Deal and his appointed committee which met over the weekend to review applicants. They are expected to provide Deal with a total of 12 names, two for every open board seat, by the end of today, Monday. Those individuals will then be contacted to interview with the governor himself.
Among the questions asked at the Dunwoody meeting was one that did seem to stump the Superintendent. A woman asked if he planned to stick with the balanced calendar that Dr. Cheryl Atkinson had promoted as part of her plan before she bailed on the school system amid allegations of illegally laying off some school house personnel and refusing to comply with open records laws that compelled her to turn over text messages.
The balanced calendar was not selected as the choice by the majority of parents in an online survey conducted by the school system, but Atkinson planned to adopt it for the 2014-15 school year anyway. Summer school would no longer be an option for any child who might need remedial attention in order to be passed to the next grade before the start of the next school year.
A parent at the meeting explained that part of her concern was over what her child would be doing during the timeframe after the CRCT statewide exam was taken, but before school would be released for the shorter summer break. "It's my understanding," she said, "that the teachers will have to quickly get those test results back and then start preparing any of the children who did not pass it so that they can re-take the exam before the end of the school year. But, if my children pass their exams, what will they be doing during all that time?"
Thurmond did not have an answer but said he would check into all the concerns raised at the meeting. He asked that the parents give him an opportunity to earn their trust and that he would, in turn, support them if they still wanted to move ahead with trying to form their own school system.
"If it is in the best interest of all the children," said Thurmond, "then I will support it. But, in the interim period, it is still my job to ensure your children are receiving a high quality education and that's what I intend to do."
Time ran out before Thurmond could bring up Dr. Kathy Howe, head of curriculum, to explain the missing textbook money. He was also asked about the overstaffed administrative offices and he stated that he was told 600 jobs had already been cut prior to his taking office. Parents grumbled that many of those "cuts" were people who were later rehired under different titles at the same or higher salaries.
Thurmond expressed his appreciation for the turnout and the questions and stated that he knew the job would be challenging. He said that the things that many people think are part of the problem may actually be part of the solution. He expects for funds to be better spent if allocated by region and not as centralized around the Superintendent's office.
Thurmond stated that the most important contacts are those who interact with the children and he wants to make sure there is a top notch instructional staff in place above anything else one could wish for.
The meeting was attended by notables from Dunwoody including Dick Williams from The Georgia Gang, Sen. Fran Millar (R), Rep. Tom Taylor (R), Bob Lundstrom, Chief of Staff for County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, and Nancy Jester, former school board member who resigned after being suspended by the Governor. Also attending was County Commissioner Lee May.
It ended on a note of optimism as one parent stated that if Thurmond could do everything he says he can do, then those in the room would "have his back."
After the meeting, the crowd filtered out and some remained behind to talk to the leadership who were there from Brookhaven and Dunwoody. "Are you buying all of this?" one parent asked Ms. Jester after the meeting. "Not a chance," she said, "and you don't buy it either." "I'm not," the parent replied. He then gestured toward the crowd that was gathering to speak to Thurmond after the meeting. "But, I think a lot of them are."
It was hard to say whether or not the crowd was completely sold on Thurmond or the idea of a better school system being within reach, but the count of smiles and applause was a lot higher at the end of the meeting that it was when it first started. But, in Dunwoody, it's sometimes difficult to tell if the homeowners are laughing at you or with you. Time will tell, as Mark Elgart and the SACS review team's clock ticks louder with each passing day. The accreditation reviewers will be back in May to assess the progress toward the all-important Dec. 31 deadline. Thurmond says the district will be ready.
Meeting minutes will be posted here by the Dunwoody Homeowner's Association when they become available.