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David Dude’s time at CSD filled with controversies, ends with flurry of lawsuits

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David Dude’s time at CSD filled with controversies, ends with flurry of lawsuits

FILE PHOTO FROM 2016: City Schools of Decatur Superintendent Dr. David Dude (center) listens to people speak during a rally across from Decatur High School. Photo: Jonathan Phillips
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This story has been updated. 

Decatur, GA — An anonymous comment left on a 2015 Decaturish story offered Decatur residents a glimpse of the future.

In October of that year, the Decatur School Board announced it had found its next superintendent: Iowa City Chief Operating Officer David Dude.

Then-Board Chairman Garrett Goebel said at the time, “We are confident we have found the right leader for city schools of Decatur.”

A commenter, who was identified only as Charles, chimed in, claiming to be a parent of an Iowa City Schools student. Decatur Schools had done Iowa City a favor by taking Dude off their hands, the commenter said.

“His arrogance, willingness to skirt the rules for his special favorites, his rudeness to parents and teachers, and above all, his shocking hubris have made him one of the most hated individuals in Iowa City,” the commenter wrote.

Attempts to reach that commenter have been unsuccessful, but the remark hinted at what would become a recurring theme of Dude’s time in Decatur: he could be a divisive figure, with a penchant for drama and courting controversy. But he could also be charming and was usually aligned with the values of the community, particularly when it came to issues of equity within the district.

The Decatur School Board on April 27 announced that it was parting ways with Dude, a decision made after months of investigative stories by Decaturish.com that examined allegations raised by the school district’s former human resources director. The lawsuit alleges Dude took more vacation than he was allowed under his contract. That lawsuit is one of five federal lawsuits currently pending against the district, and Dude is named as a defendant in three of them.

Dude did not return an email seeking comment about his departure from the district. Likewise, the School Board has continued to dodge questions about the situation, only speaking in press releases or in legal filings.

The School Board has hired McGuire Woods to look into the allegations Dude took more vacation than he was allowed under his contract. Dude collected $100,000 during his time with the district by “cashing out” the vacation days he said he didn’t use, reporting by Decaturish showed. It’s not clear if the investigation is solely about those allegations or if the McGuire Woods firm will continue their work now that Dude is gone. It’s also not clear if the School Board intends to make the investigative findings public.

The School Board intends to award acting Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman a one-year contract at its May 11 meeting.

As the School Board moves on from Superintendent Dude, here’s a look back at some major controversies that arose during his time at CSD.

The Susan Riley firing 

Susan Riley

The School Board named Dude as its next superintendent in October 2015. In less than six months, he was at the center of a controversy that produced protests and prompted an internal investigation.

Dude fired Decatur High media clerk Susan Riley, a beloved figure at the school who was named a Decatur Hometown Hero in 2011. He later reinstated her and publicly apologized to her. City Schools of Decatur spent more than $14,000 investigating the allegations that led to her firing.

The decision to rehire her ultimately came down to how Riley used a $400 iPad purchased by the school system.

The evidence compiled against Riley about her use of CSD equipment wasn’t as concrete as Superintendent Dude believed when he fired her. 

Teachers and students rallied around Riley. Up until Riley’s unexpected firing, Dude had been a hit with the community. But Riley’s firing brought that honeymoon to an end.

The Costa Rica trip

In January 2018, Dude traveled to Costa Rica to learn Spanish. Dude said he took the trip to see if the program would be beneficial for City Schools of Decatur teachers.

But the trip raised eyebrows in part due to CSD’s decision to cut Spanish language instruction from 120 minutes a week to 90 minutes a week.

Dude defended the trip in a blog post and in a phone interview with Decaturish. He said the trip was part of “exploring the possibility of doing a Spanish immersion program in Decatur.”

“One of the things I hope to happen, based on the experience, is getting more of our staff out here and going through this program because it’s ridiculously inexpensive, and a way to get them exposed to Spanish very quickly,” he said.

The survey controversy 

Dude stirred up a controversy again in 2019 when the school system asked parents to take a survey about whether they would agree to extra days off from school or early dismissals to give teachers more time to prepare for their time in the classroom.

At the time, the survey was presented as a response to requests from teachers.

An email to parents about the survey said, in part, “staff often request to have additional PL opportunities throughout the year.”

Some of the changes that CSD asked families in the community to consider included implementing a monthly day with no students, a half-day every other week, weekly two-hour early or late dismissal and adding nine days to the teachers’ contracts.

Many parents felt blindsided by the survey, which was not preceded by the public discussion that surrounds other contentious issues in CSD, like school redistricting. After Decaturish published a story about the survey, an anonymous comment submitted on behalf of CSD teachers disputed the school system’s reasoning for the survey. The person who posted the comment declined to be identified out of fear of reprisals from the district.

The comment left on the story says teachers did not request additional professional learning days. The comment says the impetus for the survey came from a request for teachers to participate in training that fell outside the scope of their contracts with the district.

The survey quickly became a PR headache for school officials, who decided that there needed to be more discussion about the survey, which was shut down.

Following the controversy, Dude made a tongue-in-cheek post on his personal blog encouraging parents to “take a deep breath” and concluding with, “So, if this has been a stressful moment for you, please know that we do listen carefully to your feedback and adjust course as needed. Everything will be okay. Namaste.”

That post prompted an email to the CSD community sent on April 12. Dude apologized for how the survey was communicated and also apologized for the tone of his blog post.

The bathroom controversy 

This was a controversy that benefited Dude politically but one that ultimately prompted one of the five federal lawsuits filed against the district.

In a 2016 memo, Dude told staff that he expects students to be addressed using their preferred gender identity and that students should be allowed access to facilities – like restrooms – and activities based on their preferred gender identity. The School Board’s policy has included protections for transgender students for well over a decade.

The memo became a public controversy after two parents and an attorney claiming to be part of a “parents coalition” raised concerns about the policy during a School Board meeting.

The majority of the Decatur community and the School Board supported Dude. As the controversy unfolded, he updated his Facebook profile picture to include a rainbow flag, a sign of support for the LGBTQ community.

But a parent would later claim that a gender fluid student assaulted a girl in the Oakhurst Elementary school bathroom.  That resulted in an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. District officials said the assault never happened and an investigation by the Department of Education couldn’t substantiate the claim. The mother of the alleged victim filed a lawsuit against the district. That case is pending.

The Carter Wilson apology 

Dude made an inaccurate statement about former CSD employee Carter Wilson during an interview about the OCR report. His statement to Decaturish resulted in another public apology.

The OCR investigation of the alleged Oakhurst bathroom incident wasn’t a total exoneration of City Schools of Decatur. It noted that City Schools of Decatur did not follow the proper investigative procedures under Title IX, the federal law that protects students from discrimination.

Dude said the problems with the way the district handled the investigation are similar to the ones Decaturish uncovered in 2017 while reporting a story about how the school district handled allegations against a teacher accused of sexually harassing students. Dude said at the time the alleged bathroom assault happened, November 2017, the school district had not clearly defined who the Title IX coordinator was.

In an interview with Decaturish about the OCR report, Dude said, “At the time, the only Title IX person in the district was  [Decatur High Athletics Director] Carter Wilson. There was some confusion about who would investigate a case like this. Carter’s understanding was he was the Title IX coordinator for purposes of athletics, and the central office’s understanding is he was Title IX coordinator for the district.”

There was a major problem with that statement. Wilson retired in the summer of 2017 before the alleged assault was reported.

Wilson was not happy and Dude published a letter to the editor publicly apologizing to him.

“I can understand Mr. Wilson’s concern that a reader of the story could take that as a criticism of him, but in no way was that the intent,” Dude said. “I was providing an example of why our district was struggling with Title IX compliance at the time, a fact that did not show up on my radar until about a year into my tenure here. Since that time, our district has made vast improvements in our handling of Title IX. Again, it was not at all my intent to convey criticism of Mr. Wilson, and I feel terrible that my choice of words could be interpreted that way.”

The resignation of two top central office staffers

In December 2019, CSD’s finance director and human resources director announced they were leaving the district.

Director of Finance Susan Hurst and Executive Director of Staff Support David Adams both resigned. At the time, board member Tasha White described the timing of the resignations as “coincidental.” But Dude’s response to questions about their departure led to the lawsuit accusing him of taking more days off than his contract allowed.

In a subsequent interview with Decaturish, Dude said that prior to Adams departure, the district’s attorneys investigated complaints about him.

Adams, the district’s former Executive Director of Staff Support, filed the lawsuit on Jan. 19. Adams alleges that Dude’s public statement about his departure from the district hampered his ability to find work and breached a non-disparagement clause of his severance agreement with the district.

The lawsuit alleges that Dude violated state statutes and ethics rules by improperly reporting his vacation time. This was reported to the school district’s attorney and shortly thereafter, “Dude began a frivolous investigation” of Adams, the lawsuit says.

It was Decaturish.com’s investigation of the allegations in Adams’ lawsuit that prompted the School Board to hire a firm to conduct an independent investigation into the claims.

More than month after the school board announced the investigation, Dude and the district parted ways.

As part of the School Board’s separation agreement with Dude, both parties signed a non-disparagement agreement. They also agreed not to sue each other.

In a statement announcing Dude’s departure, the School District said, “Dr. Dude thanks current and past board members for their support through the years and is excited for opportunities to come.”

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