DeKalb School Board Member Marshall Orson (District 2) held a nearly three-hour Town Hall Meeting in the Emory community off North Decatur Road Tuesday night, updating a packed room of parents and neighbors on the events that have taken place almost daily since the state BOE gave DeKalb a 30-day window to prove their commitment to an improvement plan.
The state BOE is scheduled to reconvene Thursday at 8 a.m. to finish the hearing started in January that was required by a law intended to help school systems protect their valuable accreditation.
But, the law has had its own share of controversy when, in 2010, then-Governor Sonny Perdue removed Warren County's school board, but the state Supreme Court overturned that decision. The law was tweaked in 2011 and yet another lawsuit was spawned when the Governor tried to remove Sumter County's school board upon recommendation of the state BOE. Orson told the room that DeKalb had just filed a lawsuit in Fulton County which asks for an emergency injunction to stop three things: the state hearing from moving ahead tomorrow, the state BOE from recommending removal of DeKalb's board and the Governor from acting upon any recommendation by the state BOE.
Residents across the county are expressing outrage and many are sure this latest stunt by the board, already in hot water with the accrediting agency known as SACS, will surely lead to a total loss of accreditation. Orson stated his rejection of this idea. He told the group that his recommendation of former Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond was a brilliant idea and that the district is already on its way to recovery. He expected that the measures outlined by SACS in its scathing report issued in December will all be met by the time SACS returns in May for its mid-point review on their progress.
"You have some areas where the district has obviously been deficient," he said. "Legal fees, for one, but also H.R., P.R., don't get me started, and finance. And that's because there has been a belief on the board in the past that it doesn't really matter if there are long-term repercussions as long as you can enjoy the short-term gain. This is a mindset, not a policy. And it is one we are changing."
One audience member asked what kind of assurances could Orson make that this board can work together and accomplish all those items in such a short time frame when they are already creating a lot of doubt based on the number of lawyers they have hired.
SACS admonished the board's exorbitant spending on attorney fees as one of the major line items they have direct control over. It is one of the major drains upon the general operations fund that is necessary for the vital parts of an education system: teacher salaries, textbooks, and other educational support materials. It is also the account that must pay for general maintenance and upkeep of the existing school buildings, an area that parents and residents have been complaining about for years.
"You have been a part of a culture that is all about me, me, me and mine, back off, it's mine," accused a man seated in the front row. He stated he lived near Briar Vista Elementary School, one that has been targeted for closure and has struggled to maintain enrollment mandates for its Montessori program. "How are we supposed to trust that you are not still about those things now that you are on the board? How do we know we can trust you when, in the past, you have authored or co-authored some very inflammatory statements that many think have cost us the viability of our school?"
Orson stated his actions as a parent at Fernbank were, at the time, what was necessary to support his interest at Fernbank, but he is now committed to working with every community in his district to help them accomplish what they want with their schools. But, he said it was important for everyone to get away from the wanting of "things" or "inputs" because they see what other schools may have and start focusing on what kind of learning they want to be taking place inside the classrooms. He said he remembers a parent who once told him that he would rather have his child in a building with a leaking roof and great learning going on than no learning and a brand new building.
An audience member spoke up and said, "Well, we have two of those things: leaky roofs and no learning." Nervous laughter in the room ensued.
This author spoke up to ask about the "proper channels" that were referenced in the SACS report. The question was, generally, "if we are not able to go to our board members for their help and board members are not supposed to micro manage, then can someone please tell us where exactly these proper channels exist?"
Orson replied with an extended discussion about the flawed nature of the SACS report and the difficulty the board has in responding to its accusations because of the need for anonymity contained in the report itself. He stated that, in his opinion, part of the problem is that decisions are made in the school system that are disjointed from other decisions that are simultaneously being made.
"If there is any kind of strategic plan," he said, "then it isn't one that is clearly communicated by anyone and may only exist in the mind of, like, one employee somewhere who just dreamed it up one day and didn't even write it down. And that certainally isn't how you go about creating a strategic plan. A strategic plan needs to take into account a lot of things, primarily the input from the community that must have some type of say about what kind of learning they want to see taking place and what form they want to see that learning take. That has not happened as far as I know. I mean, has anyone hear ever participated in something like that? No? I didn't think so."
But, one woman in the back of the room brought up the Briar Vista issue again, stating that it did not appear her community's input was really wanted or considered. The decisions were already made. A woman up front added that they have leaking roofs and windows that won't seal properly. She said that it was clear that Fernbank is getting everything they ever dreamed of while her school is being targeted for closure. We know that will harm our neighborhood and our property values. I care about this school and I don't even have children, only the four-legged kind. But, I care about my neighbors and we don't want to see this happen. What can we do? This board cannot come together for anything. These issues are not even on their radar, are they?"
Orson discussed the difference between the SPLOST plan for buildings and an educational plan that should go together. "We have the SPLOST plan," he said. "But the other is one we are all going to have to think about once these immediate issues are resolved."
Patch will have a live blog of Thursday's hearing starting at 7:45 a.m.