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Editorial: Decatur School Board’s duty is clear

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Editorial: Decatur School Board’s duty is clear

Hans Utz

This post has been updated.

Editor’s note: Hans Utz formerly served as the Deputy COO of the City of Atlanta. He writes about local and national politics. He also served on the City Schools of Decatur’s Senior Homestead Exemption committee. He and his family currently reside in Decatur.

By Hans Utz, contributor

Decatur Superintendent David Dude has multiple weeks of unexplained absences from the job we have entrusted him to do, a job no less important than the education of our children.  Despite whispered suggestions otherwise, he is a 12-month employee like every other superintendent on planet earth.  He is certainly paid as a 12-month employee, given that his pay calculations are based on 250-odd workdays in a calendar year. His quarter-of-a-million dollar salary is paired with forty-five days of vacation, terms that are hard to describe as anything other than generous.  

This is not to say that I think Dr. Dude is improperly compensated, far from it.  I firmly think the superintendent job for the City Schools of Decatur is worth that salary and that vacation.

But he has to do the work.  And that is why we are so frustrated.

And if you are annoyed by unexplained absences, just wait! There’s more.

While he was off for swaths of purported non-vacation time, he decided to cash out his actual vacation days to the tune of $100,000 over the past few years. I don’t mind that he gets a lot of vacation. I don’t mind that he gets to cash out unused vacation.  

I very, very greatly mind that he appears to not work for multiple days (a thing the rest of us would call a “vacation”), in fact he appears to disappear for far more days than the vacation he actually earns, and THEN STILL cashes out his vacation for even more pay.

Surely we have someone overseeing this, right?  Who is supposed to hold Dr. Dude accountable?

FILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: The City Schools of Decatur Board of Education. Top row, left to right: Superintendent David Dude and School Board Chair Lewis Jones. Bottom row, left to right: School Board members James Herndon, Tasha White (Vice Chair), Heather Tell and Jana Johnson-Davis. Image obtained via City Schools of Decatur

That would be the CSD Board of Education, five elected members whose duties include holding the superintendent to account.  Dr. Dude reports to the board, who are elected and are effectively Dr. Dude’s supervisor on our behalf.  It is worth asking how well they are performing in their role, given the allegations and evidence against Dr. Dude.

It is insightful to look at the most recent employment contract for Dr. Dude, negotiated by the School Board and led by Lewis Jones, the School Board chair at the time of the negotiations. The contract was negotiated over 2020 and will go into effect in July 2021. This will be Dr. Dude’s third contract with the school system, so there is an established set of comparable contract documents that should have served as a baseline for reasonable terms. Furthermore, superintendent contracts are public documents, and so there are a number of comparable superintendent contracts from surrounding school systems that could also have served as benchmarks.

That is not what happened. This most recent contract makes sweeping, substantive changes completely out of line with previous contracts and completely out of line with any comparable superintendent contracts in the surrounding metro area.  By this point you will probably not be surprised to hear that the changes significantly favor Dr. Dude at the expense of the schools.

A few of the changes include:

– An increase in the number of vacation days that Dr. Dude can cash out, from 30 to 45.  Comparable superintendents like Dekalb get 10 days.  Is it just me, or does this change feel a bit on the nose, given Dr. Dude’s use of vacation to date?

– A doubling of the out-of-pocket expense we have to pay Dr. Dude for terminating his contract for convenience, from one year to two full years’ salary. You read that right: if the schools want to break Dr. Dude’s contract after July 1, we will owe him over half a million dollars to do so.  

– A specification of the amount of time Dr. Dude has to remedy a for-cause notification, set to 60 days in the new contract. For comparison, Ms. Cheryl Watson-Harris, the superintendent of DeKalb County Schools, gets 30 days. Dekalb, which is a larger, more complicated and complex school system, gives their superintendent an entire month less time. Dr. Dude’s current and new contract also appears to say that for-cause termination can’t occur unless the School Board makes the complaint or criticism during Dr. Dude’s evaluations, which occur twice a year. This ultimately means that it might take eight whole months for the School Board to terminate Dr. Dude for cause. 

– An elimination of the reference to state of Georgia code for what constitutes a for cause justification for termination.  Dr. Dude’s previous contracts referenced the section of state code that defines for cause firings for educators, as do other superintendent contracts for obvious reasons. For some reason the School Board felt this was unnecessary. 

The point being, this monstrosity of a contract was negotiated on behalf of us all by a School Board and board chair who were supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers. I keep using the term “negotiated,” but that implies some amount of give and take.  

Note to Mr. Jones and the rest of the board: it’s not a negotiation if you fold on everything.

The contract is beyond atrocious – it is embarrassingly incompetent.  It will require renegotiation and extensive corrections to bring it back in line with a reasonable comparable standard. I would suggest that the next time, each board member demand a redlined document and take the time to read it in full prior to signing.  Vote ‘No’ if you do not understand the terms or are not given the time to absorb the changes.

City Schools of Decatur Superintendent David Dude. Image obtained from City Schools of Decatur

It is clear from the contract fiasco that expecting Mr. Jones to lead the board in taking steps to hold Dr. Dude to account over vacation would be folly.  Why worry about vacation, if you have led a negotiation that actively handicapped your ability to hold him to account for potentially more serious violations?

Thankfully, Mr. Jones is no longer the board chair.  Tasha White is the new chair as of 2021, and so we should all hope and expect that we see some spine in the board going forward.  She has promised a public statement on these issues soon, and we should all pay close attention to what she has to say.

First, the contract needs to be renegotiated to bring it in alignment with typical superintendent contracts, and very specifically the language that gives the board the power to hold Dr. Dude to account must be corrected.

Second, a proper empowered independent investigation into the allegations behind the vacation and payouts needs to occur, and the findings need to be made public once they are complete. The School Board needs to engage someone who is not an employee and does not currently have a contract with the school district to conduct this investigation. 

We need to hire a truly independent, empowered, and objective investigator with unfettered access to information and individuals. If we take the same tired tack we have in the past, we the public will not accept the findings as credible.

This cannot and will not be swept under the rug. The School Board must take the appropriate action as identified in the independent investigation, up to and including terminating Dr. Dude’s employment if that is justified, and they must release to the public the findings of the investigation so that we all have confidence in both the results and the board’s actions.

Note: I am not advocating that we summarily fire Dr. Dude. A properly run independent investigation could very well exonerate him.  

In fact, I do truly hope that is the outcome: I genuinely hope Dr. Dude did nothing untoward, and that we simply have a limited set of facts and do not have access to the exculpatory information.  I don’t think anyone relishes the idea of performing another search for a superintendent while we are still working through the pandemic.  And in total fairness to Dr. Dude, he should be presumed innocent and must be allowed the opportunity to properly defend himself.  

But make no mistake: what we do know right now is extremely problematic and must be properly and independently investigated, for both his sake and the entire community’s.  

We await the School Board’s next actions.

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