My Response to Town Hall Meeting with Marshall Orson, DeKalb County School Board Member

Matt Huey
Matt Huey

By Matt Huey – What I know about DeKalb Schools and our Board of Education stem from my involvement in Briar Vista Elementary, the school that will touch every student and tax payer who live along LaVista, Houston Mill, Mason Mill roads and much of Briarcliff Road. Since 2009 I have fought budget changes that threatened the school’s Montessori teaching program, ultimately losing the fight this school year. I spent 2 years as Parent Teacher Organization’s president advocating for better education for the children at our school.  Along the way I met many good people in the DeKalb School System and many that I wouldn’t offer a ride if they were standing in the pouring rain. What I learned about county educational politics can be summed up in 3 points:

  1. The DeKalb school system is more about money and property values than education.
  2. Your school either has influence or it does not.
  3. Your school is either on the inside or the outside of the DCSS and the DeKalb Board Of Education.

DCSSDeKalb schools have been so poorly run, so mismanaged that last week the state board recommended that every board member not serving their first term be removed citing a sustained “culture of poor governance”. This culture stems from misappropriation of tax funds, nepotism, favoritism, cronyism and politicking of an institution that has one function…providing a quality education for our children. While I cannot cite many of the past indiscretions I can raise awareness of one in the works: The planned replacement of Fernbank Elementary School.
Along with Avondale, Briar Vista, Laurel Ridge and McLendon Elementary schools, Fernbank is in the Druid Hills High School “cluster”. These elementary schools feel Druid Hills Middle which feeds Druid Hills High.  Since the entire cluster feeds the same middle and high school only elementary school districts exist within the cluster.  The entire county school system is composed of such clusters.
Currently the populations of the elementary schools in our cluster are as follows:

  • Avondale:  Capacity 686 seats, enrolment 525, 77% utilization (159 open seats)
  • Briar Vista:  Capacity 542, enrolment 439, 81% utilization  (103 open seats)
  • Fernbank:  Capacity 578, enrolment 675, 117% utilization (97 over capacity)
  • Laurel Ridge:  Capacity 443, enrolment 446, 101% utilization (3 over capacity)
  • McLendon:  Capacity 559, enrolment 490, 88% utilization (69 open seats)

We have a total of 331 open seats in our cluster, more than enough to accommodate all of our students now and in the future.  When the 900 seat Fernbank is built another 322 seats will be added bring the total open seats to over 653, the equivalent of a new, empty school. To justify this new school the county plans to redistrict 65 students from Laurel Ridge and 17 students from Briar Vista.  Below are the county’s own 2016-2017 utilization forecasts:

  • Avondale:  Capacity 686 seats, enrolment 527, 77% utilization (157 open seats)
  • Briar Vista:  Capacity 542, enrolment 423 , 78% utilization  (119 open seats)
  • Fernbank:  Capacity 900, enrolment 758 , 84% % utilization (142 open seats)
  • Laurel Ridge:  Capacity 443, enrolment 343 , 77% utilization (100 open seats)
  • McLendon:  Capacity 559, enrolment 491, 88% utilization (68 open seats)

Don’t believe me? Check the below link from the DCSS website.
http://www.dekalb.k12.ga.us/www/documents/splost-iv/proposed-organization-facilities-presentation-and-binder-(2012-12-10).pdf

Briar Vista Elementary School
Briar Vista Elementary School

In short we are spending tens of millions of tax payer dollars on new school that will decrease average facility utilization from the current 93% to 80%, all to accommodate 97 students in a school cluster with over 300 open seats.  Am I the only genius who sees the problem here? Wait…refer to the 3 points above. Who has influence? Who is on the inside? Who stands to gain financially?
Are there plans to close a school in the cluster to fill the new Fernbank? Not now and not likely.  Fernbank’ s stellar test scores are, in large part, due to the near absence of students with the Limited English skills and economic disadvantages, the two demographics that most negatively impact test scores. If a neighboring school were to close it would take some serious gerrymandering (like the Cross Keys cluster) to keep these demographics intact. Consider that the 82 students targeted for redistricting from Laurel Ridge and Briar Vista are all from single family residences, least likely to contain these demographics.
Conversely, will the county redistrict Fernbank students to relieve overcrowding and balance the cluster? History has shown that they will be in for the fight of their life if they try.
So why is county spending a large portion of the 2.2 billion tax payer dollars on a new school where it is clearly not justified? Who has influence? Who is on the inside? Who stands to gain financially?
And at whose expense? Around 60% of your county property taxes go to schools and the entire county will pay for SLPOST IV, the 1 cent tax that will be in place for the next 4 years. How much of this money will be spent in your neighborhood? Helping educate your children? Helping your property values?  For Briar Vista, our neighborhood school: no influence, no one on the inside, no one fighting for our interests.
If you are concerned you should be. Strike while the iron is hot!!  Write Governor Deal (http://gov.georgia.gov/contact-governor-domestic-form), representative Scott Holcomb (scott@repscottholcomb.com), interim school Superintendent Michael Thurmond (michael_l_thurmond@fc.dekalb.k12.ga.us),Marshal Orson, our new Board of Education representative (marshall_orson@fc.dekalb.k12.ga.us) and voice your concerns. Tell them to not only remove the board, but to begin repairing the damage they have done. Share this with anyone who will listen. Ask questions and carefully listen to the answers. There may still be time to do something that will benefit all our children, not just a chosen few.
Matt Huey
Past President
Briar Vista Parent Teacher Organization
Editor’s Note: The above piece is the expressed opinion of the author and not policy of LLCC.

DeKalb DA’s office looking into school board spending

Atlanta Business Chronicle by Carla Caldwell, Morning Call Editor
The DeKalb County Schools system was put on probation this week by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and now the DeKalb County district attorney’s office has asked for copies of the agency’s report that expresses concerns about school board spending.
The report includes allegations of mismanaged money and unethical behavior. SACS blames the school board for what it calls a financial crisis, reports Atlanta Business Chronicle broadcast partner WXIA-TV.
The SACS report says there are glaring examples where the board has failed to account for spending, including a loan for $25 million dollars to buy textbooks. SACS said half the money was used to fund books purchased in previous years, but it could find no evidence that books were purchased with the remaining $12 million, WXIA reports.
The DA’s office is looking at who spent the money and if there was any illegal activity, WXIA says.
Dr. Eugene Walker, DeKalb County School Board Chairman, insists there is nothing that would warrant a criminal investigation.
“We don’t manage the money. That’s done by the system,” Walker told WXIA. “We do have state audits and we just finished the KPMG audit. To my knowledge they did not find any wrongdoing or mismanagement.”

DeKalb school district in “conflict and crisis,” put on probation by accreditation agency

By Ty Tagami for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s third largest school district, DeKalb County, was placed on probation Monday after a six-month-investigation into scores of complaints of mismanagement.
In a scathing report, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accuses DeKalb officials of engaging in bickering and nepotism while letting district finances wither. Mark Elgart, president and chief executive officer of SACS parent company AdvancED, also said the district had allowed academic achievement to slip.
The decision by the accrediting agency could have wide-ranging effects on the local economy, observers say, from discouraging businesses from relocating to DeKalb to depressing housing values, which already have dropped precipitously.
The problems stem from a decade of “poor, ineffective governance” that has caused a decline in academic performance and pushed the nearly 100,000-student system to the financial brink, said Elgart. The district could finish the school year in a deficit should any unforeseen expense arise, he said during his morning announcement.
The next step, accreditation loss, is “imminent” if officials don’t respond appropriately, Elgart said.
In 2008, Clayton County lost its accreditation and suffered dire consequences. Thousands of students fled the system; it lost millions in state and federal funds; and home values in the area plummeted.
DeKalb school board Chairman Eugene Walker said at a later news conference that he hadn’t had time to “digest” the SACS report, but he promised school officials would work together to regain full accreditation. Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, who attended the same press conference, did not speak.
“We’ve not lost our accreditation, and we’re not planning on losing our accreditation,” Walker said.
DeKalb was already accredited “on advisement,” having been dropped a notch from full accreditation by a prior SACS visit. The district will lose accreditation if it fails to address the concerns raised in a 20-page report by next December, Elgart said.
Among the allegations were nepotism.
The SACS report said it had “various forms of evidence” confirming that the school board interfered in hiring. In August, for instance, Walker sent Atkinson an e-mail recommending a candidate for Georgia’s Teacher Alternative Preparation Program.
“With his strong background and personal demeanor I feel that he would be a great candidate to work with our kids,” the e-mail reportedly said. “Please know that I have met this young man and he is the brother of one of our board. … I would appreciate any assistance that you could provide.”
At his news conference Monday, Walker said, didn’t address any specific allegation, but said, “I know I’ve done something wrong; I just don’t know what it is.”
The report also questioned budgets that failed to predict recurring costs for utilities and legal work, and it raised concerns about $12 million in debt for new textbooks that no one interviewed by SACS had seen. “Numerous interviews revealed that no one could identify any school that had received new textbooks and it was reported that nearly all schools were struggling with ways to repair old textbooks,” the report said.
Board members routinely bypass the command chain, and make “harassing” calls and visits to schools, peppering staff with demands and causing “an incredible waste of staff time and resources that should be dedicated to improving student performance,” the report said.
SACS determined that the problems are rooted in a culture that predates the current board and is already sending shoots into the future.
A team that visited for three days of interviews noted that “it was widely reported” that board members-elect, who take office Jan. 1, were already visiting “their” schools, “thereby perpetuating the culture of interference and ignoring the autonomy of the staff.”
The probation decision stung parents such as Valrie Kong-Quee, whose daughter attends Arabia Mountain High School. It also confirmed deep suspicions.
“They’re guilty all the way,” Kong-Quee said. “Financial mismanagement: guilty, big time.” Her gripe: that the board agreed to pay for the legal defense of former Superintendent Crawford Lewis, and even removed a previously self-imposed $100,000 cap on the costs. Lewis is scheduled for trial next year on allegations that he engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the school system of construction money.
Kong-Quee is a real estate agent and said she fears DeKalb is becoming another Clayton, where 3,200 students fled after losing accreditation. Meanwhile, the population dropped and unemployment rate rose, from 6 percent before the recession to around 11 percent this year, though it’s unclear how much of that is due to the school system woes.
“I hope we don’t sit around and let our accreditation slip away,” Kong-Quee said. “Even the talk of suspension is not good,” she said. “It’s bad, it’s really bad, and I’m angry about it.”
Leonardo McClarty, president of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, said the probationary status could hurt efforts to recruit companies and jobs. He also looked at the bright side: He has a kindergartner in an elementary school in Tucker, and said the teachers and administrators there are doing a good job; this is a governance matter, he said, and there is time to address it.
Parents need to get involved — in their PTAs, school councils and at school board meetings, but they should offer constructive ideas, he said. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease, but squeaky doesn’t have to mean bad,” he said.
Ultimately, McClarty added, its incumbent on voters to educate themselves to pick good school board candidates rather than names on the ballot that they happen to recognize.
While probation in itself carries no technical consequences for students or the district, it could mean the end of the road for the school board.
A new state law allows the governor to replace school boards in systems on probation.
The Georgia board of education must schedule a hearing within 30 days. DeKalb officials will be asked to give their side, and the state board will then determine whether the local board should be replaced. The recommendation is forwarded to the governor, who makes the actual decision.
There have been five probation cases since the new law was enacted in 2011. The state board has typically given systems six months to fix things before making its recommendation. In only one case, in Miller County earlier this year, did it conclude that the board had to go.
Gov. Nathan Deal got the recommendation in March, and removed the Miller school board in April.
For parent Rae Anne Harkness, removal of the board can’t come fast enough. This report was “long overdue,” she said. The “awful” anecdotes in the report confirmed what she’s heard about nepotism. She blames DeKalb officials for eroding academic quality, and says quality is one reason she sent her daughter to a charter school instead of her neighborhood school in central DeKalb. It wasn’t always like this, she said. She’s heard plenty of older residents talk of how the good old days, when strong DeKalb schools used to attract new residents.
“Now, people don’t move here because of the schools,” Harkness said, “or they move out because of them.”
Staff writer Nancy Badertscher contributed to this article