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