Meeting notes suggest DeKalb Super won’t budge on charter cluster idea

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt February 8, 2015
Interim DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond speaks at the Brookhaven City Council’s March 26, 2013 meeting at PATH Academy. File photo obtained via Reporter Newspapers

Interim DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond speaks at the Brookhaven
City Council’s March 26, 2013 meeting at PATH Academy. File photo obtained via Reporter Newspapers

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond this week met with representatives of a group that wants to create a Druid Hills Charter Cluster.

The meeting at first seemed like a sign that the superintendent was reconsidering his opposition to the idea. Thurmond’s spokesperson confirmed it to Decaturish, said the meeting was at Thurmond’s request and called its tone “respectful.”

But a summary of the meeting we obtained suggests the superintendent is still deeply opposed to the idea.

“When asked about the basis for denial, (Michael Thurmond) said he knew in his heart that it could not be passed,” the meeting summary says. “He said he knows the difference between right and wrong. He likened to the hard fight for change that occurred in Selma.”

The summary is based on a first-hand account relayed by one of the charter cluster board members who attended the meeting, which occurred earlier this week. There is conflicting information about the exact date of the meeting. The spokesperson said it occurred on Tuesday, but other records we received indicate the meeting took place on Wednesday.

The information in the summary was provided to a person affiliated with the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce. Members of the Chamber have been working behind the scenes mediate the charter cluster discussions, according to several people familiar with the matter. The summary has been forwarded to several people affiliated with the chamber and charter cluster movement.

We obtained the meeting summary on the condition that we not identify the sender. No one is willing to go on record about the exact details of the discussion. It should also be noted that the summary is based on the account of charter cluster supporters. Thurmond has not responded to a message asking for his version of what happened.

The meeting with Thurmond included Kathleen Mathers, Fred Daniels, and Dave Roberts from the Druid Hills Charter Cluster movement, the summary says. Jose Boza, who oversees charter schools for DeKalb County Schools, was also present.

Daniels and Mathers didn’t return a message seeking comment. Attempts to reach Roberts were unsuccessful.

Since the charter cluster effort crumbled, former supporters – most notably Druid Hills Charter Cluster Chairman Matthew Lewis – have joined Together in Atlanta. TIA is pushing a proposal to annex Briar Vista and Fernbank Elementary Schools, as well as Druid Hills High, into the city of Atlanta. It would also include Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The charter cluster would’ve encompassed seven schools – Avondale Elementary, Briar Vista Elementary, Fernbank Elementary, Laurel Ridge Elementary, McLendon Elementary, Druid Hills Middle School and Druid Hills High School. The idea of three of those schools moving into Atlanta and becoming part of the city’s school system has created angst for parents of the other schools in the cluster that feed into Druid Hills High. It’s not clear where these students would attend school if the high school became a part of Atlanta.

Lewis, who was not at the meeting with Thurmond, said he couldn’t comment on the summary we obtained because the Druid Hills Charter Cluster board members haven’t met to discuss what Thurmond said.

“We expect to have a chance to do that next week and I’m happy to talk to you after that,” he said.

The meeting was held at Thurmond’s office. The superintendent cancelled a previously-scheduled meeting with the charter cluster board at the Chamber of Commerce office, according to people familiar with the details. Thurmond asked for the meeting to take place at his office.

Charter cluster board members quickly realized that Thurmond wasn’t inclined to change his mind, according to the meeting summary.

“Within the first five minutes, they knew the conversation would not be productive,” the summary says. ” … He showed his animosity toward them immediately. At first, he said he would not clarify why he recommended denial of the petition, but as the conversation progressed, they did discuss some of his concerns.”

Here is the point-by-point summary of that meeting provided by our source.

– (MICHAEL THURMOND) said that (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) didn’t care about the other kids in the district.  (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) responded that they were focused on the kids within the cluster because they would be responsible for higher levels of accountability and greater outcomes because of the potential charter status.  Charter schools must perform higher than traditional schools to keep their charter.

– (MICHAEL THURMOND) said that they should not have asked for full autonomy for the cluster.  (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) responded that they weren’t sure what type of charter petition would have partial-autonomy.  (MICHAEL THURMOND) said they should have created one with partial-autonomy.  (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) asked for an example of that so they could consider it.  (MICHAEL THURMOND)/Boza said there is not an example of that to share.

– (MICHAEL THURMOND) said that their petition did not have innovations that were not already in place at other schools in DCSD.  (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) responded that their methods of implementing programs like IB, STEAM, and Montessori would be unique within DCSD.

– (MICHAEL THURMOND) said that if they wanted their petition approved, they should have approached him more respectfully.  (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) responded that they sent multiple polite emails requesting information and meetings.  Some meetings that had been scheduled were supposedly taken off his calendar.  At a meeting that did happen, (MICHAEL THURMOND) didn’t attend and the staff that attended didn’t know why they were there.  Many emails from (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) went unanswered.

– (MICHAEL THURMOND) said that DH is a high performing school and (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) should have thanked DCSD for that.  He said that there should not be a reason to leave DCSD because they are already high-performing.  (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) responded that they didn’t want to stay in the little league if they could go for the big league and get even better results.

– (MICHAEL THURMOND) said he didn’t think that a private entity could control DCSD taxpayer money appropriately.  (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER) responded that they would be independently audited annually so that could be assessed.  People on the governing board (like Fred Daniels) have been successful at running banks and large budgets.  (MICHAEL THURMOND) didn’t think those skills would translate into successful management of a seven-school budget.

– When asked about the basis for denial, (MICHAEL THURMOND) said he knew in his heart that it could not be passed.  He said he knows the difference between right and wrong.  He likened to the hard fight for change that occurred in Selma.

– When asked if the basis for denial boiled down to the desire to maintain power over those schools, (MICHAEL THURMOND) said yes.  He said he would never grant full autonomy to the charter cluster.

– (MICHAEL THURMOND) said he would not consider a third party role in discussions with (DRUID HILLS CHARTER CLUSTER).  He would not have a facilitator or the Chamber present under any circumstances.

– When asked if adherence to the charter laws was a factor, he said that just because it is in the law doesn’t mean that he has to agree to it.

The DeKalb County School Board currently is looking for someone to replace Thurmond as Superintendent when his contract ends. For the TIA plan to move forward, a bill calling for a referendum would have to be approved by the state Legislature. The Legislature is currently in session, but so far no annexation bills have been introduced.

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