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George on Georgia: The DeKalb County School Board rejected Rudy Crew. Now what?

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George on Georgia: The DeKalb County School Board rejected Rudy Crew. Now what?

Rudolph “Rudy” Crew. Image provided by DeKalb County Schools
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A friend wanted help a couple of weeks ago drafting an opinion letter to stop the DeKalb School Board from hiring Rudy Crew as the new school superintendent.

I flaked on him. I regret that.

But in my defense, I don’t think he was quite sure how to approach this problem either. He was torn. And so was I. We were holding back, trying to listen, to see if our misgivings were based on something serious enough to justify raising a ruckus.

I registered a lot of angst in the community about Crew’s history with lawsuits and allegations of misconduct, but also about the optics around fighting with the school board over their process. To put not too fine a point on it: some white people were worried about what things would look like if the opposition to Crew came predominantly from white parents in Dunwoody and Brookhaven and Tucker, and some black people were worried about undermining the moral authority of a majority-black school board.

It turns out, that was enough. A nearly-unanimous decision turned into a 4-3 rejection, with Diijon DaCosta, Michael Erwin, Stan Jester and Joyce Morley voting against the pick. Crew’s nomination died an ignominious death by Zoom meeting. I note in passing that Erwin and Jester are leaving the board. The seats held by Erwin, Jester and Morley are up for election in a month.

So … now what?

Serious question. How do you get someone qualified to even apply for this job now, after the school board publicly walked away from Crew in the face of opposition? Who wants to go through that?

DeKalb is one of the 30 largest school districts in the United States. Running a huge school system like this is usually a career goal for many administrators. People work for 30 years building up resumes and notching victories to win a job that pays $300,000 a year and marks you as one of the country’s most important education leaders.

The search committee expected to get about 150 applications for the superintendent job. Instead, it received fewer than 70. The pandemic might have had something to do with that, of course. But I think we have a larger problem no one wanted to confront.

Picture yourself looking at DeKalb County as a job hunter with the kind of management chops that merit one of the biggest education jobs in America. You know that, seven years ago, the governor threw most of the school board out amid allegations of corruption and incompetence that threatened the system’s accreditation. You know the county bleeds away about 15 percent of its teachers every year, even though it pays better than competing districts.

And then you see and hear that DeKalb is riven with racially-divisive politics that hamstring leadership. White parents generally send their kids to private schools. There are about 130,000 school-age kids living in DeKalb County, and only about 100,000 attend the public-school system. One out of three DeKalb residents is white; only one out of nine DeKalb public school students is white.

You witness this tension emerge in arguments about where to draw school attendance zones, which schools to assign to what cluster, teacher recruitment, discipline – even which schools can play in what stadiums and how concession revenue is distributed. You can certainly see how it affects the way the school board makes decisions, and how it often affects the way the community reacts to decisions.

The DeKalb school system has been in purgatory for the last 10 years. Just when things were getting back to what I am euphemistically going to call “normal” – where most people find the school system too boring to pay any attention to it – the economy threw DeKalb’s school budget straight into hell. That superintendent candidate will see that DeKalb faces a $76 million budget cut that can only marginally mitigate with a tax increase because the system is up against its statutory tax limit. DeKalb will get $30 million in CARES funding from the federal government. But the remaining $45 million is roughly equal to the operating budget for all nine charter schools in DeKalb, combined.

Now, I might be describing every large public school district in America. But tell that to the people who saw this job and noped out.

If there is a single trait I would associate with public school administrators, it is that they are almost uniformly risk-averse. To be successful at a high level in government, you almost have to be: there’s a lawsuit around every corner. The ones who find their way to the top, as often as not, are there not because of some particular genius but because they have survived a Darwinian bureaucratic system designed to punish mistakes. It is why we see so little innovation in public education – innovation requires toleration for experimental failure. Bureaucracies exist to prevent mistakes from happening.

To exceptionally skilled managers – the people who have built enough credibility to even be considered for the top job here – DeKalb’s schools may have looked like a falling knife they’ve been asked to catch, and that’s before the school board turned down Crew in public. If this is how DeKalb appraises risk …  who takes that risk? Having rejected Crew, who do we expect will step up?

Well … usually, those would be risk-takers. Risk-takers who can perform are glorious, assuming you can distinguish between ability and luck. But they’re also a lot more likely to cheat. Books on organizational behavior cite the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal as a literal textbook example of the phenomenon.

Here is the hell to come.

The school board has fundamentally decreased the chances of attracting a candidate who has broad experience because anyone with experience is likely to have had some kind of high-profile tussle with parents, teachers, or staff that will draw similar scrutiny.  The school board is likely to be secretive about who they are considering now, in ways that would enrage anyone who is trying to watch the process. No sane person will accept the job without iron-clad financial guarantees that will similarly enrage people about sweetheart compensation packages for public administrators.

It’s apparent that people will have knives out for whoever gets the job, which could easily lead to extraordinarily defensive behavior by a new superintendent. Instead of being driven by performance, or collaboration, or innovation, the district’s central office may become even more driven by in-group / out-group social dynamics, as an administrator looks to protect himself or herself from people looking for any possible angle to create doubt.

Don’t be surprised if Crew gets picked anyway … after Election Day. That might just beat the alternative.

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