I've been holding off on writing this post as I wanted to let a situation happening in Georgia's third largest school system come to closure, or at least get past a big chunk of the "drama." While there is still some legal maneuvering that needs resolution, most of the drama should be in the rear-view mirror.
Dekalb County Schools educates almost 100,000 public school children in the Metro Atlanta area. It is also a county where the demographics are "flipped" - meaning, it is a majority "African-American" community. The school district is near the bottom of Georgia's school systems in terms of graduation rate - a paltry 59%, well below the state's already woefully low average of 67% (ranked 46th out of 50 states). The school board is comprised of 9 publicly elected board members (currently comprised of 3 whites - 2 of which are newly elected, and 6 persons of color), and if you looked at the history of this school system, you would be shocked at the level of mismanagement and poor governance that has taken place. These nine members have acted like 9 "fiefdoms" instead of working together as a unified board to govern the school system. But lets look at the facts (courtesy of WABE):
- 12/17/2012: After a six-month investigation and multiple warnings, the DeKalb County School District was placed on probation for one year by its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The primary concerns, outlined by SACS in a report, have to do with board governance issues as well as financial problems. Board members continually interfered with the school's day-to-day activities, finances were mismanaged, and they showed a historical lack of understanding of the qualifications needed to be truly competent board members of a $1B school budget. The divisions on the board are "toxic," and they have shown an inability to agree on decisions, even not being able to elect a new Chairman as recently as February 2013! In addition, the school system was in a severe deficit and has had 3 school superintendents in the past 3 years. The governance issues have been going on for more than a decade, but they have come to a head in the past few years. NOTE: Dekalb was the only system out of more than 1,000 systems that SACS, the accreditation agency, placed on probation.
- A state law that was passed with bi-partisan support in 2011 provides the governor with the power to suspend and eventually remove school board members if a school system is placed on probation by the accreditation agency. The governor would appoint temporary replacements until those seats are up for re-election. It was a "stopgap" measure to hold local school systems accountable for malfeasance and putting accreditation at risk.
- 1/17/2013: the school board attends a state board of education hearing to determine whether or not to recommend that the governor exercise his right to suspend the board. No action was taken, and the board was asked to return in February for a continuation of the hearing and then decide whether or not to recommend suspension of board members. The school superintendent did NOT attend the meeting and support the board.
- 2/7/2013: Dekalb's school superintendent resigns after just 16 months on the job and is offered a lucrative separation agreement. A career politician, Michael Thurmond, is appointed interim superintendent. While Thurmond is a respected Democrat who oversaw the Georgia Department of Labor in a previous position, he has no education experience, and learns after his hiring that he must close a $24 million budget deficit. He was also appointed by a dysfunctional board that lacked the support of the community.
- 2/18/2013: the board frantically tries to resolve governance issues, and the embattled board chair, Eugene Walker, decides to step down as chairman, even as the board was unable to agree on a new chairman. Despite their financial deficit, the school board votes to pay $150,000 to a prominent law firm for "governance training." They made this decision behind closed doors, which appears to be in violation of the bylaws, as nearly all board meetings are to be public, except for personnel matters and pending litigation, which this does not appear to fall under.
- 2/19/2013: the school board tries to block the upcoming state board of education hearing, by seeking an injunction in federal court, claiming the law to remove board members was unconstitutional. The motion was denied, mainly because of a technicality in that they did provide notice more than five days before the school board hearing.
- 2/21/2013: after a 14 hour hearing, the school board votes unanimously to suspend six of the nine board members (3 were new members who did not serve during the time of the alleged activities and thus were deemed not "eligible" under the existing statute).
- 2/25/2013: Governor Deal announces that he will accept the recommendation of the school board to suspend the six members.
- 2/28/2013: NAACP backs six ousted board members despite there being wide bi-partisan support for their ouster.
- 3/4/2013: after a hearing in federal court on March 1st to hear the arguments challenging the constitutionality of the law, the judge denies the school board's motion to stop removal of the board members. However, he leaves open the possibility of future litigation by claiming there are issues that need to be settled by the Georgia Supreme Court. Embattled former board chair Eugene Walker, the only suspended board member to speak publicly about the pending litigation, decides to pull out the race card and refuses to stand down, despite public outcries that he risks spending taxpayer dollars on more litigation and not on educating students.
- 3/6/2013: Nancy Jester, one of the six suspended board members, resigns from the board, the only one to do so as of the writing of this post
I have intentionally left out much of the sordid details of the examples of gross mismanagement and governance failures, but much of it is in the links above, one of which is a link to the report filed by SACS and their accreditation arm, AdvancED. While some will continue to question the investigation methodology employed by SACS, it is not as if they regularly seek to put school systems on probation. I am certain that there will be public pressure now and in the future for SACS to reform their investigation methods, the evidence is nonetheless "overwhelming." The outcry has much to do with the fact that there is no appeals process with the accreditation process. So what does all of this mean?
- Governance of public education is woefully outdated and requires a new model. There is a lack of accountability in public education, and there may be validity in having urban districts be overseen by the mayor. At least in this case, the taxpayers know who is accountable. Look at New York City Public Schools as an example.
- Urban districts need strong leaders. In the case of Dekalb, the new superintendent is using Gwinnett County Schools' superintendent as his "mentor." However, this district isn't even graduating 70% of its students, so it doesn't feel like it will be much help. Instead, I recommend that Dekalb look outside the state to someone like Dr. Jesse Register, who runs Nashville's public school system. Dr. Register has a proven track record of successfully transforming struggling urban districts, such as Chattanooga. Instead of looking internally, it is IMPERATIVE that Dekalb, and other struggling districts look towards "best practices." Once the system is turned around, the district should then bring in a superstar superintendent with strong education leadership credentials.
- Teachers need to be a part of the solution. In the case of Dekalb, the new superintendent waited far too long before meeting with teachers. They should have been near the top of his meeting agenda when hired. Students, parents and teachers are the three critical constituents.
- Look at current research on best practices. The Fordham Institute has authored research on education governance, and there is a new book titled, Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies For Managing Urban Schools that discusses how the portfolio model can be a successful approach to transform urban school districts.
My hope is that national ed reformers look at Dekalb County Schools as a case study in how the traditional public school governance system is outdated and bold reforms need to take place before we lose a generation of children because they are not educated to be career-ready for the 21st century.