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Editorial: It’s time for local leaders to save DeKalb County Schools from its school board

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Editorial: It’s time for local leaders to save DeKalb County Schools from its school board

DeKalb County School District Administration and Instructional Complex on Mtn. Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse

I normally have a 24-hour cooling-off period before I give a hot take on any issue of importance.

But the situation with DeKalb County Schools appears to change by the minute.

I hope that this editorial will reach some important people in our county, like our legislative delegation, our county commissioners, our county CEO, our mayors, our council people and the leaders in our business community. Because you need to hear this from someone who is not only a parent of a DeKalb County Schools student, but an experienced journalist who has seen firsthand how a bad school district can wreck a community.

Bad schools aren’t just bad for a community’s students. They’re also bad for a community’s economic and civic future. The two are inextricably linked, and it’s time we all started acting like we understand that fact.

The No. 1 threat to progress in DeKalb County is its school district. The No. 1 threat to the school district is its hot mess of a school board.

On April 26, the school board unceremoniously fired Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, whom the board hired in 2020. There was a sense ahead of time that this was coming, though I don’t think anyone predicted it would happen so quickly. Hours before the meeting, the school board blamed the superintendent for failing to fix Druid Hills High School, notwithstanding the board’s own decision to remove the school from a list of renovation projects. A day earlier, state Superintendent Richard Woods threatened to cut off facilities funding for the district’s projects in response to concerns raised by Druid Hills High students.

The board didn’t give an explanation for firing the superintendent, but we don’t need one. We already know the answer. Watson-Harris became the school board’s scapegoat for its inability to manage a $2 billion institution.

This school board, under the leadership of Board Chair Vickie Turner, is as foolish as it is inept. Firing Watson-Harris isn’t going to stop the state from breathing down the district’s neck. It’s not going to fix crumbling school buildings in the short or long term. It’s definitely not going to restore the public’s confidence in DeKalb County Schools.

I don’t know enough about the inner-workings of the school district to get a feel for how people felt about Watson-Harris. Based on my own observations, she meant well and at times seemed a bit in over her head. Some of that was not her fault. She was the board’s second choice after the debacle of selecting – and then unselecting – a man named Rudy Crew as a superintendent finalist. Crew never worked a day in DeKalb County Schools, but wound up getting $750,000 in cash and prizes anyway. It won’t surprise you to learn that the Crew fiasco was another example of DeKalb County School Board incompetence and mismanagement.

How much will the DeKalb County School Board have to pay Watson-Harris after dragging her name through the mud this week and firing her under dubious circumstances? Inquiring employment law attorneys want to know.

Over the years, there’s been the one consistent theme of this school district: the school board is a liability, not an asset. Even Gov. Nathan Deal removing most of the members in 2013, effectively performing a hard reboot of the district, has not resolved the fundamental problem. The school board as it’s currently constituted cannot untangle the mess that is DeKalb County Schools.  The district has had seven superintendents over the last 12 years, not counting Rudy Crew. A dysfunctional, meddlesome school board is the only common denominator there. Year-in and year-out, it doesn’t matter who sits on the board or who the superintendent is. The district remains the same.

The school board as it’s currently structured is incapable of fixing this district. That’s why it is past time for elected leaders from outside the district to give DeKalb County Schools their full attention. State Sen. Emanuel Jones is already floating the idea of reconstituting the board, so all members must run at-large, meaning school board members can no longer lord over their own personal fiefdoms.

But that will take another legislative cycle to play out, and the school board will have at least another eight months to make things worse. In the short term, there’s an election on May 24. The board members running for reelection need to justify why they deserve another chance at serving on the board when the decisions they’ve made so far brought us to this moment. That won’t address the problem inherent in the makeup of the school board, but it’s the bare minimum these board members should do to ensure good government going forward.

DeKalb County government can also do its job. There are legitimate health and safety concerns, not only at Druid Hills High, but at other schools in the district. CEO Michael Thurmond, who was interim superintendent for a time after Gov. Deal rebooted it, needs to use all resources at his disposal to make our school buildings safer. Inspectors with code, health and fire must visit every school in this district, preferably sooner than later.

There has to be an independent, outside audit of all the district’s finances. It must be an audit the school board can’t manipulate or control. If what state Superintendent Woods said is true, that the district has millions in unspent COVID-19 funds, then that’s on the school board, not the superintendent. They approve the district’s spending. We need to know where that money is and what the district has been doing with it. Our elected officials can request that the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts conduct a performance audit, though I’m not clear on whether that applies to an entire school district. But these are the kinds of questions our local leaders should start asking.

As a parent, I’m not comfortable with this school board overseeing my child’s education, and I don’t trust this board to hire the next superintendent. The only people who have any ability to steer this district in the right direction do not work for DeKalb County Schools. And they need to step up. Now.

This district is in a precarious position. Anyone who believes this school board can correct itself and chart a better course hasn’t been paying attention.

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