By Jennifer Hatfield, President of the Evansdale Elementary School PTA and Tucker parent of two.
Having attending numerous DeKalb Board of Education meetings, I can tell you I have NEVER witnessed the DeKalb board act in such a manner. I hope that Governor Deal watched the webcast of the hearing since he was not present.
I believe that the testimony of the nine current board members painted a pretty clear picture of what is wrong. Our system is broken, though only two members, Dr. Speaks and Mrs. Jester, had the courage to express any accountability. Sadly, they are two of the most honest and hard-working members of the board.
In the next hearing in February, it may be helpful to call Dr. Atkinson and former BOE members Paul Womack, Don McChesney and Thomas Bowen to give testimony and answer questions. These three have nothing to lose at this point as they have been unseated in their positions on the board. They may help bring even more clarity to the "culture" on the board.
In addition, I believe that BOE members, particularly Dr. Walker, Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Coppelin-Wood should be asked about the perceived "friends and family plan," otherwise known as nepotism within the district. Dr. Walker has gone on record previously indicating that he sees no problem with this practice. This has been a huge part of the problem with missing monies within the system. I believe that some of this money was directed to middle management salaries. This issue needs to be explored further. Based on my experience and observations, here are my recommendations. I realize that the state BOE can only recommend suspension of the entire board, so these are for Governor Deal.
- Recent legislation calls for a reduction of the size of the school board from nine to seven in 2014. If possible, I believe that if and when Governor Deal steps in, he should ensure that the board only consists of only seven members going forward - this year.
- Keep Nancy Jester on the BOE. She rises above the antics and political posturing, though she is frequently a target of it. She seems to truly have the best interest of DCSD's students at heart. She asks the tough questions and demands answers. She is not afraid to call attention to inconsistencies and inequities as she sees them.
- Keep Pamela Speaks on the BOE. She is intelligent, functional and thoughtful. She has served the system well since joining the BOE and also seems to have the students' best interest at heart.
- Keep newly elected members Orson Marshall and Jim McMahan on the BOE. The people of their districts have spoken. I'd like to see them have a chance. We, as stakeholders, can re-evaluate their service in 2014.
- Put Melvin Johnson on probation. As a former employee of DCSD, there is a huge conflict of interest with his service. He is responsible for a questionable lease/deal with New Birth Church for a location for the "Leadership Academy" to meet that has cost the system hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ask him why, with a brand new central office facility and numerous vacant buildings throughout the county, we must lease space from a DeKalb church for this program. Nepotism? Mr. Johnson is simply more of the same and our kids deserve better.
- Put Donna Edler on probation. She seems to have fed into the perceived division of North and South within the county. She is very much a part of the aforementioned disfunction that exists within the board. Ms. Edler is part of the problem, rather than the solution.
- Put Jay Cunningham on probation. This man has a questionable, if not criminal background. I have witnessed firsthand his grandstanding. I have met numerous parents within his district that are dissatisfied with his lack of service. Ask him about his relative's car dealership and its deals with the school system. In addition, ask him about his own pizza restaurant and its dealings with DCSD at the upcoming hearing. More nepotism. Mr. Cunningham is also part of the problem, rather than the solution.
- Put Sarah Coppelin-Wood on probation. Perhaps the most incompetent member of the current board, she doesn't even know how to work the button she's tasked with pushing to vote at the meetings. Seriously, a staff member must get up during meetings and walk over to show her what to do. She often reads written statements prepared for her, rather than expressing her own personal thoughts. She needs to go immediately, if not sooner.
- Put Eugene Walker on probation. This man is a career politician. He continually denies corruption, even when the evidence is irrefutable. I believe he is also guilty of nepotism within the system. He's as much as said so. He is also quoted as saying "I see color" with respect to race. It is shameful that he has been allowed to remain on the BOE this long and as chair for the last year. Shameful! He is a huge part of what is wrong with this board. Grandstanding and political posturing are his MO.
The following are just a few of the problems I see within the system that many of the current board members simply refuse to address.
- Too much money spent on legal fees.
- Too much money going to central office salaries. An audit of the system recommended downsizing the central office. Rather than doing so, the district laid off employees, then rehired nearly half of them in different roles.
- Disfunction among BOE member and an inability to work with one another - irreconcilable differences, if you will.
- Nepotism and corruption at the central office.
- BOE involvement in hiring/firing and contracts.
- Gross fiscal mismanagement. To name just a couple of examples; 1) SPLOST IV bond interest was not accounted for, so there was a $12M shortfall costing our kids numerous building level improvements. Projects were canceled, so that monies could be used to pay interest on said bonds. 2) In addition, There has been serious gerrymandering by district officials (former CFO specifically) of the system's budget. For instance, line items such as electricity cost (that should be rather invariable) were gerrymandered so that large amounts of funds could be applied elsewhere in the budget. Only Nancy Jester seemed to catch this in the budget that the BOE was asked to approve. Even the chair of the finance committee, Paul Womack, didn't see it. Ms. Jester was stonewalled when she brought it up and asked questions about it.
Finally, here are two photos I took with my cell phone at the hearing of Eugene Walker and Sarah Coppelin-Wood sleeping. Yes, both fell asleep during the hearing. I was sitting just across the aisle from them on the same row and could see very clearly. I even heard Ms. Coppelin-Wood snoring at one point. I wish I could say I was surprised by this observation, but I wasn't. You see, they have never had to bear any accountability for their actions previously. There is no oversight or code of ethics. This is a huge problem.
I am not a BOE member, nor is my job or position at stake and yet, I listened carefully to each and every word that was uttered. I care and anyone else that truly cared would not allow themselves to fall asleep during such a hearing, especially the very people who are facing possible suspension. It's disgraceful and flies in the faces of the 98,000 students of DeKalb County, their parents and other stakeholders. No longer should this type of indifference be tolerated.
Do you agree with Ms. Hatfield's views and recommendations? Tell us in the comments below-