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Accreditation report hints at divisions on DeKalb School Board; legislators weigh options

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Accreditation report hints at divisions on DeKalb School Board; legislators weigh options

The DeKalb County Board of Education met on Monday, April 18, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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DeKalb County, GA — As the DeKalb County School Board continues to navigate the controversy it created by rejecting extensive repairs at Druid Hills High, an accreditation report obtained by Decaturish suggests board members are not working collaboratively for the entire district.

Meanwhile, the county’s legislative delegation is weighing its options after the state superintendent threatened to block funds for the district’s building projects.

Decaturish obtained a copy of a recent review of the district conducted by Cognia, a nonprofit accreditation organization. The report about DeKalb County Schools is mostly favorable and says the district often, “Demonstrates noteworthy practices producing clear results that positively impact the institution.” But the report includes some low-key criticisms of the board.

One of the few areas where Cognia found the district to be lacking involved the school board.

The report says, “Each governing authority board member is highly committed to the district and the students, but board members are not working together collectively in support of the mission of DeKalb County Schools.”

The report found that individual board members were not always supportive of the district’s efforts.

“Board members are elected to serve four-year terms and are elected one from each of the seven regions in the DeKalb County School District,” the report says. “This structure has the tendency to put board members in the position of being a ‘representative for my region.’ The team was very meticulous in discussing the roles and responsibilities of board members only with the board members themselves. No outside conversations were held. Support for various initiatives across the district was not consistent across the board member interviews.”

Cognia encouraged the board to renew its commitment to “assuring a culture of collaboration, transparency, and continuous learning.”

“The board may wish to further examine a system of reflection that looks at the board as a whole, how it works in unity, and public perceptions,” the Cognia report says. “Board members must fully understand and appreciate the important role they occupy in school district governance, and the equal importance of acting within, not beyond, this role. It is incumbent upon every board member to set aside personal agendas and focus their efforts on governing together in the best interest of the school system.”

“Change in behavior is ultimately the responsibility of each individual board member. While Cognia fully appreciates that board members can and will have differing opinions, Cognia’s governance standards expect board members to be professional and collaborative in resolving or moving beyond those differences, focusing primarily on areas of common interest and responsibility in service to the school system and its students. If board members embrace Cognia’s recommended practices, they are likely to find they enhance, not diminish, their ability to fulfill the significant responsibilities of their elected positions.”

Legislators watching

DeKalb County’s legislators are monitoring the recent drama surrounding the school board following its rejection of a modernization project for Druid Hills High.

Druid Hills High School was one of three high schools on a list of schools to be rebuilt or modernized in the next three years as part of the district’s new Comprehensive Master Plan, developed over months of evaluation and public meetings. The CMP was presented at the school board’s regular meeting in February as part of a resolution to notify the Georgia Department of Education so that the projects would be eligible for reimbursement under the DOE’s Capital Outlay program. Modernization of DHHS was the only project removed from the project list.

After the board voted to remove their school from the list, students at DHHS created a video documenting the dilapidated and unsafe conditions there. The video attracted both local and national media attention. It also prompted the recent visit by the state DOE’s facilities team.

After the video attracted widespread media attention, the school board decided on April 18 to remove the modernization of Druid Hills High School from a list of high-priority projects in favor of a broad mandate to make repairs throughout the district. But the board recently paid architecture firm Perkins & Will $2 million to prepare a plan to address long-standing and widespread problems with the district’s school buildings. While the board members who voted for the measure say they believe that the plan can still be followed, it’s not clear how that is possible given constraints on the district’s budget.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods on April 25 ordered the school board to take immediate action to fix problems at Druid Hills High.

The order was part of a scathing letter addressed to the district regarding unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the school.

The state superintendent’s letter notes that a state DOE facilities team recently visited the school. While some problems were addressed, most of the fixes were for show, the letter says.

In the letter, Woods threatened to block facilities funding for the district.

“I will not recommend DeKalb County Schools’ facilities plan for State Board of Education approval while these fundamental issues and concerns remain,” Woods’ letter says. “DeKalb’s facilities plan will not move forward in its current form.”

After Woods’ letter became public, state Sen. Elena Parent posted the letter on her Facebook page.

“The [school] board’s current plan won’t get it done,” Parent wrote. “My colleagues and I are paying attention. Let’s work together and fix this. Stay tuned.”

Parent declined to elaborate on what actions the legislative delegation might take. The legislative session recently ended.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones said he’s following what’s happening in DeKalb County Schools and read Woods’ letter.

“I don’t think anyone who has observed the workings of the board can disagree much with what the state superintendent said,” Jones said. “The issue is how do we move forward from here.”

While the legislative session is over, Jones didn’t rule out introducing DeKalb County Schools-related legislation in future sessions. He suggested removing school board districts entirely and making all the seats at-large.

“There’s any number of things that can be done to force this board to work together,” Jones said.

But Jones said ultimately it’s up to the voters to elect good representatives to the board. There’s a school board election on May 24. He noted that he was around when Gov. Nathan Deal removed school board members after the district came close to losing its accreditation.

Jones said if the board isn’t careful, it could happen again.

“Nobody in DeKalb County wants to sit around and see dysfunction in our school board,” Jones said. “There’s so much at stake. [There’s] always that nuclear option. The governor does listen to our delegation.”

Reporter Sara Amis contributed to this story.

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