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Editorial: DeKalb County Schools making questionable superintendent hire during uncertain time

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Editorial: DeKalb County Schools making questionable superintendent hire during uncertain time

Rudolph “Rudy” Crew. Image provided by DeKalb County Schools
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This post has been updated. 

DeKalb County, GA – I’m a reporter, as well as the editor and publisher of Decaturish. I’m also a parent who plans to send his child to a DeKalb County school this fall.

There will be challenges ahead for us as there are for any family in an urban school district. There are pockets of excellence in DeKalb County intermingled with vast poverty and academic mediocrity. Superintendents of these districts have a seemingly Sisyphean task. There are problems within these school systems that superintendents can’t fix. They can’t make our society more equitable, stop the gentrification of our neighborhoods, eliminate food insecurity, or ensure that there’s a dedicated parent at the dinner table every night helping with the homework.

It’s a tough job. And it’s not surprising that superintendents of these large districts with diverse constituencies often find themselves in the middle of controversies. I’d almost be suspicious if a career superintendent had an unblemished record.

All that said, as a parent with a child headed to a DeKalb County school, I have serious reservations about Rudy Crew, the district’s sole finalist to be its next superintendent. His public controversies are worthy of further scrutiny by the School Board and the public. More importantly, the School Board needs to ask itself if this is the kind of person DeKalb County needs at this time.

This decision is far above my pay grade. I don’t know what was discussed in the closed-door interviews the School Board held with Crew and the other candidates. I can only base my opinion on media reports and public records his career has generated. Based on this information, I think hiring someone like Crew is a risk that the district doesn’t need to take.

On paper, he looks like a great get. He was chancellor of New York City Schools and the superintendent in Miami-Dade County. He currently serves as President of Medgar Evers College in New York.

He’s probably overqualified for this job.

That, to me, is the first sign of trouble. No offense, but it’s hard to see how going from a college president to superintendent of a local school system isn’t a step-down for him career-wise. I’m sure DeKalb County Schools’ leadership sees it as a huge bargain. Based on the controversies he’s courted in his career, I’m more inclined to see hiring Crew as a gamble.

But Crew taking a step down in his career to manage DeKalb County schools isn’t what concerns me the most about him. Two articles, in particular, have shaped my thinking about this. One was published by the New York Times in 1997.

The headline?

Crew Attacks School Investigator, Calling His Reports Exaggerated

This is the lede:

“[New York City] Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew complained yesterday that the independent investigator set up to investigate corruption and misconduct in the New York City schools had produced exaggerated reports that were damaging to the schools and the people in them, and said that he was going to begin his own investigation of the investigator.”

The other article, ominously titled “Bad Apple,” appeared in the Miami New Times in 2007. The article says that the Miami-Dade School Board hired Herbert Cousins, an FBI agent, as an inspector general for the district. His job was to investigate waste and fraud.

The article says, “Unfortunately Cousins no longer holds the title, thanks in part to Rudy Crew.”

The article elaborates:

“It was not a good relationship because of his dictatorial management style,” says Cousins, who speaks in a soft baritone and sports prescription sunglasses that conceal his steely brown eyes. “There was nothing Rudy Crew could do or say to intimidate me or make me violate investigative protocol.”

In a civil lawsuit …, Cousins alleges Crew conspired with several others to plant unflattering stories in the press that eventually forced him out. He is among four former high-ranking school district employees who have sued the Miami-Dade superintendent in the past two years.

Crew wanted Cousins out, Cousins claims, because “I refused to allow him to interfere or control my office’s investigations.”

It’s not a flattering article for Crew, but worth a read. The allegations that Crew has fought accountability are the ones that concern me the most, both as a reporter and a parent.

News reports about Crew reveal other troubling allegations.

According to the New York Times, Edward Stancik — the investigator in New York that Crew wanted to investigate  — wrote a “withering report” that officials at a high school in Queens could have prevented a gang rape from occurring in a classroom if they’d listened to a warning from a teacher that a room was being used by students for sexual activity. The New York Times wrote that Stancik, “called on Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew to dismiss two administrators at the school and to discipline three others, including the school principal, Richard Ross.”

“In response, Dr. Crew reassigned three of those officials to administrative posts elsewhere,” the New York Times wrote. “The principal, who has tenure, remained in place, pending a decision by the Chancellor on whether to file formal disciplinary charges.”

The Miami New Times article followed up on this story.

Although he reassigned the assistant principals after the scandal, Crew refused to remove Principal Richard Ross despite Stancik’s recommendation and parents’ outrage. According to news articles, Crew personally investigated the incident and found that “sufficient additional information” convinced him firing Ross was inappropriate.

Crew ran into a strikingly similar controversy in Miami. An 18-year-old star running back was accused of having sex with a 14-year-old inside a girls’ bathroom at a high school there. The girl’s mother complained to the school’s staff and got nowhere, so she filed a police report. The football player was arrested. The article alleges that “Crew’s office knew what the star football player had done” but he was allowed to play in a state championship game. After the controversy erupted, Crew put the varsity football players at the school on probation and fired the coaches. He vowed to fire 21 employees who didn’t report the crime.

The Miami New Times article says, “Despite the impressive display of authority, Crew’s reaction to the Northwestern affair is much like his response to scandals that plagued him in … New York: too little too late.” The story accused one of Crew’s direct reports of at the time of trying to interfere with the criminal investigation into employees accused of covering up the crime. My summary really can’t do that article justice. To read it, click here.

There are other stories that concern me, but not nearly as much. In Oregon, where Crew worked as the state’s chief education officer, he made trips that had nothing to do with his job. The Oregonian wrote, “Most of that travel had nothing to do with his $280,000-a-year job. Instead, again and again, he flew first-class to give speeches, often for pay, to audiences drawn by his charisma and the national reputation he built when he ran New York City and Miami schools.” Then there’s the audit of Medgar Evers College. The audit found that $32,421 in tax levy funds were spent furnishing Crew’s residence and $2,088 was charged to the college’s corporate credit card to pay Crew’s personal bills.

Each of these reports on their own would be concerning but could be dismissed as an isolated event, perhaps fueled by local politics. Added together, these reports show a pattern of behavior that worries me.

Even more concerning are Crew’s attempts to push back against investigators in New York and Miami who were trying to hold his administration accountable. DeKalb County is a uniquely vulnerable district. Michael Thurmond pulled it out of the ditch when its accreditation was threatened and the previous superintendent, Stephen Green, kept it from sliding back into the ditch, whatever his other flaws may have been.

But a personality like Crew can easily run roughshod over the district’s employees and school board, creating crises of accountability that undermine the public’s trust in the county’s schools.

I attended a virtual press conference with Crew on Tuesday. He was charismatic and unflappable.

I didn’t get to go over each of my concerns with him, but I tried to hit the high points.

When I asked him about the New York Times report saying he planned to investigate the investigators, Crew described Stancik — who has since passed — as a well-intentioned investigator who sometimes went too far.

“God rest his soul,” Crew said. “He did a fairly credible job in rooting out corruption and crime and budgets in New York City. I supported that most of the time. There were however times it was sensationalized, in my mind, unnecessarily. There were things he would contextualize as being a crime, in fact, they were not a crime at all, they were errors in how certain dollars were accounted for.”

To save time during the press conference, I combined my questions about the travel in Oregon and the audit at Medgar Evers.

He said the job in Oregon was a job he was excited about, but it wasn’t well defined.

“I frankly fault myself for this,” Crew said. “There had been no budget appropriated for this job. There were no rules and regulations, I came to Oregon kind of if you will, bare-knuckled and willing to jump in and begin this work and did so without the benefit of a Miami budget, or ‘How does it work here in terms of your procurement cycle?’ I explained to the governor that I knew people in other places where I could — if I could get in front of them — raise some money for this effort.”

He said, “every nickel and dime” for the effort had to be raised from wealthy donors.

“Suffice it to say it did not work out,” Crew explained. “After six months of this, I went to the governor and said I can’t be a one-person show here.”

He described the audit at Medgar Evers as a misunderstanding. He said he was given permission to buy items to furnish the president’s residence and that the residence would be used in his official duties as the college’s president.

“The previous president had material that he had used — tables, chairs — and it had gone to the college,” Crew said. “It had been reverted to the college. There was an expectation that presidents will do entertaining and donor solicitation.”

He said he was unaware that some of his personal bills were being paid with the college’s credit card. He accepted responsibility for it all the same.

“When they found it they dinged me,” Crew said. “It shouldn’t have been charged there. I take responsibility for it.”

He added, “There was never personal use of any of these dollars that the state or anybody else found as part of this audit.”

Two of the School Board members I talked to are all in on hiring Crew. They speak about him like he is going to be a revolutionary leader. He may well be. The man’s qualifications are not in dispute.

School Board Chair Marshall Orson called my perspective “ill-informed.”

“You cannot be in the game and in high profile positions and not have garnered some naysayers,” Orson said.

That’s true. But when controversy happens at nearly every job that a superintendent candidate has held, the School Board needs to ask whether the problem is the profession or the person who held those jobs.

School Board member Allyson Gevertz sounded frustrated at the criticism the board has received over its choice. At her request, I waited until after the press conference with Crew before writing this editorial.

“We as a board, we’re not stupid,” she said. “It’s not like we’ve never heard of Google. We knew everything that everybody knows. We had the benefit of the resources of a search firm, attorneys who are able to dig and talk to people. We also had the benefit of spending a lot of time with him and hearing what was not printed in the stories.”

I too wonder about what was not printed in the stories, but for entirely different reasons.

Gevertz was unequivocal about her admiration for Crew.

“He’s awesome,” she said. “He’s smart and innovative and visionary. … He makes decisions and sticks with them. His decisions are based on what’s right for students, not rights for adults. That’s what I’m personally telling people that are reaching out to me.”

I don’t disagree with her in one respect. Crew is indeed smart. I’m not convinced that his decisions are always based on what’s right for students. In many cases, they appear to be decisions that are based on what’s right for Crew.

One naysayer on the board I spoke to, Stan Jester, shared my concerns. He said Crew has good qualities that people might like.

“He’s probably seen just about everything,” Jester said. “He’s been superintendent of a number of really big school districts. He’s used to big schools. He’s used to a lot of people. He’s used to big diverse school districts. That being said, my thoughts are I thought he had too much baggage. He made too many bad decisions. He hasn’t been superintendent in over a decade and I thought he wasn’t up to speed on being a superintendent.”

Crew could well be what’s needed to move the DeKalb County school district beyond perceptions created by its failures. If he is, I will be truly happy for the district and for him. But based on everything I’ve read about Crew, he seems like a poor choice, particularly now. There’s no rush. We aren’t even 100 percent sure students will be able to return to school in the fall due to the pandemic. We have time to get this right.

My own personal preference would be for the School Board to appoint an interim superintendent from within the district who knows the district well and can be a caretaker while the board continues searching for someone with a similar resume who has less baggage. Not that anyone’s asking me.

Honestly, as a reporter, I should be thrilled about this hire. If Crew’s history is any indication, I won’t have any shortage of things to write about.

As a parent who wants his son to graduate from the county’s schools, I am concerned that Crew would be a step backward and would exacerbate the problems that already exist within the district. Unfortunately, his hiring seems all but certain, so I can only hope that the School Board and Crew prove me wrong.

As a parent, that would make me happy. But I’m not counting on it.

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