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Are Stakeholders Stacking the Deck in DeKalb?

Some parents think public comments are being used to convey the wrong message to the school board's new Interim Superintendent.

The DeKalb County Board of Education held its first public meeting on Feb. 11 since reaching a costly separation agreement with former Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Atkinson. It also was the public's first official introduction to a newly-appointed Interim Superintendent, Michael Thurmond, the former state labor commissioner.  

The school board complex on Mountain Industrial in Stone Mountain was packed, despite what the camera showed to audiences watching the live webcast. The public speaking time slots were filled to capacity as well, which made up for the relatively light business agenda covered by the board. 

On the agenda for the evening was the approval of AP Tests, more computers for STEM labs and a small increase in capacity for the popular Museum School of Avondale Estates. One item of controversy was the approval to continue the maintenance agreement for an expense software system, eSIS, that has been criticized by many employees as not living up to expectations. There were a few questions about why the board was being asked in February to approve something that was already renewed in January.

But, the evening's more interesting commentary came at the beginning of the meeting, which should have started at 6 p.m. The board and Interim Superintendent arrived about 17 minutes late which did not sit well with the audience, many of whom had to leave work early in order to arrive in time for the 6 p.m. scheduled start.  There was no apology or explanation given, but the school system website had noted an earlier closed meeting was taking place which may have been related to the delay.   

It would be a tough crowd for Mr. Thurmond to win over and the late arrival did not help warm up the audience. It also did not slow down board member Nancy Jester who provided the new Interim Superintendent with a few suggestions during her scheduled delivery of the night's "inspiration." 

Next up would be the public comments, which this author would participate in, and Thurmond appeared to keenly listen to every person on the night's roster. Unfortunately, he likely did not gain a lot of insight into the problems he will face as the comments were a mixed bag, leaving the impression that stakeholders in education are either clueless about the crisis they are facing or perhaps in some type of collective denial. 

Yes, it's true that the public speaking list was filled. That much has become fairly common over the past few months. But, for every speaker on the list who had valid concerns, there was one who took equal time to rave about their schools and praise everything from their technology labs to their reading programs to the schoolhouse employees, involved parents and supportive communities.   

There's just one thing missing: test scores have plummeted in DeKalb over the past 10 years along with graduation rates. Teachers have quit by the hundreds without being replaced and many more are talking about doing the same as soon as their contracts expire. The troubles plaguing DeKalb's schools have been all over the news and comes up in conversations at playgrounds, carpool lines and online parent sites almost daily. So, some parents are now asking, "Why are the public comments not reflecting reality?     

Could DeKalb's Public Comments be a Stacked Deck? The school district has been in hot water with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and is facing a possible loss in accreditation. The recent public meetings over redistricting were criticized for being "informational only" when they should be, according to school board policy, an opportunity for stakeholders to give meaningful feedback as an important part in the overall process. The sentiment that something is not quite right with these so-called "public" forums is something that was being discussed while the audience waited for the board and its entourage.   

As the public comments were underway, there were even greater rumblings coming from the audience and, particularly among the speakers, who sit in a reserved section directly behind the podium. The general sentiment was that the "Citizens Comments" list that evening had been artificially filled. According to one of the evening speakers, if that was the case then it would not have been the first time.  

"Every time there is a controversial subject matter, the public comments magically fill up," says Viola Davis, who was number three on the evening's agenda and spoke in support of a referendum against the placement of cell towers (offered by this author). She said she had to request a spot three weeks in advance and without knowing for sure if there would even be a meeting in February. "I wonder if they realize they are taking time away from people who have real concerns that need to be addressed,” added Jolly parent Kim Ault who was there to speak about school overcrowding.

The first speaker on the agenda was Yvette Normal Hall who cheerfully waved a school pom-pom for Columbia High School. She said she was just there to show her support, but later admitted that her children already graduated so she was not as involved with the school as she had been in the past.

It was speculation among some speakers that perhaps the school administration or PTA had asked for glowing reports from schools in order to provide the new Interim Superintendent with a different impression of DeKalb. Or, perhaps the board, which is facing the state board of education on Feb. 21, had asked some of their constituents to help them look good as they try to save their jobs. 

There was no official explanation for what some audience members were calling "bizarre" and "inappropriate." Thurmond concluded the evening by stating, “I do not have a magic wand,” but promised to do the best job possible to save the accreditation and return DeKalb to its former status of being a great school system. The next day he met with the media and told them of his plans to use his political connections to try to get another chance for the board and possibly even avoid the state BOE hearing altogether. As a media-savvy lawyer and politician, there is no doubt Mr. Thurmond can do a lot for the DeKalb School System. 

But, one has to wonder whether he will make the right choices if he is being shielded from hearing the truth? It could be a very rocky start of yet another disastrous chapter in DeKalb's history. Carla Weston-Brown, a speaker that evening, summed up the feelings of many when she said, "we have selfish ambitions while our children suffer."

Guy Midvale February 16, 2013 at 02:12 PM
You raise a good question? It is possible BOE members asked friends to speak about the positive things. It is also possible that some people wanted to say good things about their schools. I have a lot of good things to share about schools in Tucker, not so many to say about the central office.
Cheryl Miller February 16, 2013 at 04:22 PM
But, did you choose to get on the speaker's roster in order to tell everyone how great things are? It is not normal for people to be vocal about things going the way they are expected to go. Ask anyone in the hotel business how many comment cards they get that say "sheets were clean, bed was made, AC was working," compared to how many they get if room service was slow or there was loud noise disrupting guests trying to sleep. You don't go to your school board 10 days before a hearing about serious problems like missing textbook funds and intimidation of school hose staff and say, "lights are on, kids are great, valentines are being made, tests are being taken" when someone has jacked up your taxes and now can't locate the books or the money that they said they needed for the kids. It is a symptom of the disease in our schools. There are more than just a few board members to blame for what has happened and apparently is still taking place.
Cheryl Miller February 19, 2013 at 05:58 PM
Interesting discussion on DeKalb School Watch: http://dekalbschoolwatch.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/michael-thurmond-writes-an-essay/#comment-16188 Here is part of what was revealed by "No duh" Below is the email that is sent to a principal when their school becomes the lucky winner to get the privilege of sending a shill to the BOE meeting to waste Public Comment time. Prinicpals MUST at least ask parents to step up so the Principals can show the Powers That Be they are jumping through the hoops. Sadly, some parents jump at the chance to make fools of themselves. We all know many great things are happening at the school level. The parents, teachers and students know it. The public comment time should be used to highlight what the insolated Board needs to know to help solve PROBLEMS in the schools. This time should be spent bringing to light problems (and sharing possible solutions) that the BOE would never hear about if the principals/parents/students had to rely on the Superintendent/Central Office staff solely to communicate to the Board. The Emperor still has no clothes! (continued below)
Cheryl Miller February 19, 2013 at 05:58 PM
From: LORRAINE SANFORD 1/29/2013 4:41:34 PM Subject: Great Opportunity to Highlight Your School Congratulations!!! You have been selected to highlight the great things/accomplishments happening in your school at the March Board Meeting. Please have your parent representative send an email message to: Margaret_C_Francois@fc.dekalb.k12.ga.us Please include the following in the message to Ms. Francois: Name Address Phone Number Topic: Great/Positive Things at ___________________School. Board Meeting: March ________ Thanks for sharing the great things happening at your school. Please send me an email message after your parent is confirmed to speak. Thank you. Lorraine Sanford Executive Assistant to Ms. Cynthia Brictson, Region II Superintendent DeKalb County School District Administrative and Instructional Center 1701 Mountain Industrial Boulevard Stone Mountain, GA 30083 Office (678) 676-1105 Fax (678) 676-0535 lorraine_sanford@fc.dekalb.k12.ga.us
Luis Camacho February 21, 2013 at 08:43 PM
Cheryl, I have never worked with Mr. Thurmond directly. Everything I know about him is from his time as the Commissioner of the DOL. I have always found him to be fairly honest and forthright. I believe he will see through the facade, and right this sinking (stinking?) ship. I can not say the same thing for any one else associated with the board, much less DeKalb county with the exception of Nancy Jester. I believe what the board has done is criminal and they should be prosecuted.
Cheryl Miller March 03, 2013 at 08:29 PM
I have also received feedback that suggests that not only is the "deck stacked" at these public comments portions of the school board meetings, but the speakers are often the paid employees of the system. Awkward! And wrong! This is America. The school system cannot continue to function in such a detrimental way and also try to control the public's ability to comment on their failure. Free speech will prevail.
Cheryl Miller March 03, 2013 at 08:29 PM
Thanks Luis, I agree.

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