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."