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Candidate Q&A: DeKalb County School Board District 4

campaign coverage Metro ATL

Candidate Q&A: DeKalb County School Board District 4

A voter shows their sticker and stylus after casting a ballot at the Decatur Recreation Center on Tuesday, Nov. 2, Election Day. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Decaturish.com sent a Q&A to all candidates running for DeKalb County School Board. Here are the responses of the candidates running for District 4 in the May 24 election. Early voting starts May 2. To see your sample ballot, visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter Page by clicking here. The answers have not been edited. Please note: the Q&As were submitted before the School Board Fired Superintendent Cheryl Watson Harris.  All our elections coverage can be found at Decaturishvotes.com 

To see a map of DeKalb County School Board districts, click here.

Editor’s note: There are two candidates in this race, Allyson Gevertz (the incumbent) and Bonnie Chappell. Decaturish was unable to find contact information for her opponent. A message sent to her via Facebook was not returned. 

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Allyson Gevertz

Candidate name: Allyson Gevertz

Candidate website:  AllysonGevertz.com

What is your occupation? Former School Psychologist

What neighborhood do you call home? Briarcliff Woods

Why are you running for this position? I’m running for a second term because I still have work to do. During my first term, I weathered a superintendent search, a financial reckoning, and a global pandemic. The District is now moving onward and upward—I want to be part of that ascent.

If elected, what are your top two or three priorities? My number one priority is addressing the impact of COVID-19 on our stakeholders. In the early days of the pandemic I wrote, “This will cause a mental health epidemic worse than the pandemic itself.” Unfortunately, we are now seeing those effects in our students, staff, and parents. Depression, anxiety, rage, isolation, and social difficulties are rampant. Teachers cannot teach, children cannot learn, and families cannot support achievement until they are physically and mentally healthy. Another priority is fiscal oversight of our budget. The next five years are extraordinarily important for our District because our decisions on ESSER funds and ESPLOST revenue will impact students for decades. The District must be strategic and intentional in our spending. If I am re-elected to my position, I will continue to advocate for best practices in financial stewardship.

How would you work to accomplish your priorities if elected? Students cannot achieve academically when their mental and physical needs are not met. Our kids cannot take advantage of our District’s educational access when they are not supported by their families. When teachers, staff, and parents are hurting, our kids suffer. I will continue to advocate for mental health services in our schools, as well as creative partnerships with community organizations. Budget oversight is the Board’s responsibility. When I joined the Board, there was no functioning Audit Committee. Since my first day, I have pushed for the Audit Committee to convene. The first meeting of the Audit Committee (since 2012) will be next month. For years, I have requested zero-based budgeting, along with an objective process for prioritizing capital expenditures. DCSD’s spending should reflect our primary goal: student success with equity and access. I will hold DCSD accountable for utilizing best practices and I will hold our Board accountable for audit oversight.

What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s greatest strength? DCSD’s greatest strength is its students. I am continually impressed by the creative ideas, determination, aptitude, grit, and diversity of our student body. Our students have missed out on so much during the pandemic, but in many cases, the adults mourned for what children lost while the kids found new ways to adapt. DCSD students are an inspiration to us all.

What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s biggest weakness? DCSD’s biggest weakness is our history. In 2012, DCSD administrators were indicted for criminal activity, and in 2013, the Board of Education was removed by the Governor. Since then, the District has experienced turnover in superintendents, loss of accreditation, and audit compliance problems. Currently, our audits are back in compliance, corrective actions have been taken, our accreditation is fully restored, our lowest performing schools have moved off “failing” lists, and our superintendent is focused, first and foremost, on student learning. Our District made national news for innovative work during the pandemic, yet many stakeholders remain unaware of the groundbreaking strides made for our kids. As the District continues to put students first and demonstrate fiscal responsibility, the relevance of our past will continue to diminish.

How would you address the school district’s biggest weakness? DCSD Communications, media outlets, community partners, and all stakeholders can help keep the focus on student success. As a Board of Education member, I hold listening sessions, solicit input on issues, communicate Board decisions, and meet with students, school staff, and community members. I will continue to listen to stakeholders, put students first, be a team player, promote partnerships, and celebrate the incredible work happening in our schools.

What is your opinion of the current superintendent? Before Superintendent Watson-Harris came to DeKalb, I warned her of two areas of concern which may not have been on her radar. One was addressing the needs for our English Language Learners, and the Latino community in particular. Often, in DCSD, the conversations about diversity revolve around Black students and white students, but not necessarily other populations. The second area of concern was what I called a “flinch culture” in DCSD: school-based and District-level leaders seemed afraid to innovate because they were afraid of getting in trouble. Superintendent Watson-Harris ensured that all principals received tools for interrupting bias-based beliefs, as well as concrete strategies for supporting specific subgroups: Black and Latino males, students with special needs, and English Language Learners. The Superintendent is shifting the leadership mindset from boss to coach, and championing the ideas of those closest to the students or most familiar with the issues.

What is your opinion of the school district’s latest comprehensive master plan? In the past, prioritizing capital projects was not based on objective determination of need. Often capital improvements were made to support pet projects of Board members rather than to benefit all students. Prior to and during my tenure as a Board member, I advocated for DCSD leaders to use an objective process for assessing and prioritizing building needs. The current system hasn’t been perfect, but it represents a huge step forward for DCSD. The Board now realizes DCSD needs more than objective data to prioritize projects. We asked experts to create a strategic vision for DCSD properties, including an assessment of national trends, an inventory of special programs, and recommendations for underutilized properties. The Board invested $2 million in the CMP, which was recently completed. I believe the plan is a solid blueprint for the next 10 years of projects. I will continue to engage in community discussions as DCSD implements the plan and considers the long-term recommendations.

What is your opinion of the decision to remove Druid Hills High School from the district’s facilities renovation project list? I advocated to keep the Druid Hills High School modernization project on the list to submit to the Georgia DOE for the Local Facility Plan. Keeping it on the list would have ensured State reimbursement for the project when completed. The condition at DHHS warrants capital outlay and the students deserve a safe, functional building.

Do you support creating early childhood learning centers in every region in the DeKalb County School District? I support early learning access in every region of DeKalb. The Board and our partners need to discuss what increased access looks like. The county government and private partners have expressed an interest in providing more early learning opportunities. DeKalb County has 60,455 children under age 6 and 73% of those have both parents or their only parent in the labor force. Our government, businesses, and nonprofit partners need to assess the early care and learning landscape in DeKalb, then collaborate to increase access. Working with partners is critical for funding since our District’s state allotment is designated for K-12.

What is your opinion of how the school district has handled the COVID-19 pandemic? The pandemic devastated students and staff. For school districts across the country, there was no approach that appeased all stakeholders. I believe DCSD made decisions based on the best science and expert judgement at the time. The District received national acclaim for utilizing medical advisors from the CDC and other health organizations to assist in decision-making. The Superintendent and her team worked hard to ensure that students and staff received appropriate technology, financial incentives, professional development, and mental health resources. Administrators and staff sought to ensure our students had food, academic materials, technology, and social-emotional support. The Board of Education backed these efforts and oversaw the CARES/ESSER spending to make them possible.

What is your opinion of the school district selecting Rudy Crew as a finalist for superintendent, then deciding against hiring him? My public statements and vote are accessible online, but I have been advised not to comment on this topic.

How would you work to avoid litigation against the school district and control spending on legal fees? Students first means avoiding spending exorbitant amounts on litigation if at all possible. I will continue to work with the District’s legal team to ensure that Board members, administrators, and staff are up-to-date on liability risks. I will also continue to attend state and national conferences where new laws (passed in the legislature or decided by the courts) are explained. The pandemic is shifting the litigation landscape and school districts must be proactive in assessing and addressing risks.

What should the school district’s spending priorities be? The top priority for DCSD should be students, and our spending should reflect that value. For many years, as a community advocate and Board member, I requested zero-based budgeting, where the budget is created from the ground up. Students and classrooms are funded first and all expenses must be justified. For example, instead of sending a prior budget to division chiefs and asking for modifications (requests for increases and decreases on specific line items), a zero-based budget is completed from scratch. Last year, division chiefs worked with each other to ensure the classroom needs were funded first—then every other expense supported local school efforts. I will continue to support zero-based budgeting because it prioritizes our students.

What is your opinion of DCSD’s management of its finances, and how would you improve it? Early in my term, I found that DCSD’s audit was not on the state website. I questioned the CFO, who downplayed the problem. I repeatedly asked the Board Chair to convene a Committee of the Whole on the audit or to ask the audit committee to meet (it hasn’t met since 2012). Throughout 2019, I questioned the Board, met with private CPAs, reached out to the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts, and eventually met with the State auditors. At that meeting, they offered to complete two years of audits to bring DCSD up to date. I shared the offer with then-Superintendent Tyson, and she started the process of bringing us into compliance. Superintendent Watson-Harris completed the work and our audit schedule is now on track. DCSD has also made progress on addressing audit findings, finally reversing years of careless errors and sloppy record-keeping. I will continue to push our Board, the new BOE Audit Committee, and our District to demonstrate best practices in financial management.

What would you do to improve teacher and staff morale and retention in the school district? During the pandemic, society discovered how much we value our educators. Social medial posts, newspaper articles, TV stories, and anecdotal reports showed citizens, from parents to employers, celebrating the work of school staff. I hoped that gratitude would translate into a cultural shift, where teachers are actually paid what they deserve. Fortunately, our state legislature passed pay raises and DCSD gave bonuses. Unfortunately, this is not enough. Teacher and staff morale will improve when they are consistently valued in our society. This means dramatically higher salaries, as well as laws supporting them as highly trained education experts rather than questioning their professional judgement. I have advocated on behalf of teachers and staff for over 25 years, and I will double down on my advocacy in hopes of capitalizing on pandemic-inspired gratitude.

Why should teachers work DeKalb County Schools instead of other districts? Teachers should work at DCSD because of our amazing students, our innovative leaders, and our enthusiastic parents. Learning occurs when a positive student-teacher relationship leads to trust and engagement. However, a teacher cannot address all his/her students’ academic, developmental, and social-emotional needs without support. In DeKalb, principals are empowered to be the instructional leaders of their buildings. They have access to resources, in the form of specialists and innovative programs, available to support teachers. Our District has a national award-winning Department of Family and Community Empowerment, which assists parents in supporting their children’s learning. Schools have strong PTSA/PTA organizations and Principal Advisory Councils. Some schools also have foundations which fund teacher requests. Recently, DCSD allowed visitors back in buildings, and volunteer opportunities are returning. Teachers will feel the incredible love and support of the community.

If you are elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner? How would you work to promote ethics and transparency in government? If elected, I promise to conduct myself in a transparent and ethical manner. For the last four years, I have communicated honestly with stakeholders. Through regular social media posts, newsletters, and monthly listening sessions, I have shared my approach to District issues, sought feedback, and provided follow-up information once Board decisions are made. I regularly refer to the Board Handbook, which includes roles, responsibilities, and norms. Every January, I publicly pledge to enforce the Board Code of Ethics. I believe our Board could use more accountability in this area and I will continue to fight for the highest ethical standards for all Board members and District leaders.

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