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Reduced enrollment causing staff changes for the DeKalb County School District

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Reduced enrollment causing staff changes for the DeKalb County School District

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

This story has been updated. 

By Sara Amis, contributor

DeKalb County, GA — Reduction in enrollment is causing a shake-up in DeKalb County School District’s hiring of new teachers as budget allotments for schools are amended.

Dr.Tekshia Ward-Smith presented the district’s human resources reports at the DeKalb Board of Education’s regular meeting on  June 6. Ward-Smith stated that because of drops in enrollment over the last two years, some schools were determined to need fewer teachers than had been hired for the upcoming school year. Principals were informed of coming staff changes at a recent meeting.

Ward-Smith said that because the district has 550 open positions, all teachers who have been extended contracts will still be offered jobs, but not necessarily at the schools for which they were originally hired. Their contracts allow them to decline employment by June 15. Ward-Smith said the district hopes to notify new hires of all changes by June 10.

School districts around the country are scrambling to find teachers, and DeKalb has the highest number of open teacher positions of any metro Atlanta school district. Gwinnett, the district with the next highest number of open positions, has almost twice as many students.

Henri de Vastey, a French teacher at Lakeside High School, criticized the district for not hiring enough teachers or retaining the teachers it has.

“Students do not learn without teachers,” said de Vastey. He stated that failure to hire enough teachers means that classes will be overcrowded and teachers will not be able to teach effectively.

De Vastey alluded to possible reasons for high teacher turnover rates.

“We need to identify toxic leadership and mismanagement at the schoolhouse,” said de Vastey.

Board members pointed out that the district knew that enrollment has been dropping throughout the pandemic, and that an expected recovery has not happened.

“Why was this gap just now detected? It sounds like it has been building for several years,” board member Anna Hill said.

Chief Financial Officer Charles Burbridge stated that Allovue, the budget software purchased by the district about six months ago, allowed a more accurate view of allocations for each school, and adjustments to those allotments were the result.

Burbridge requested the first of four yearly renewals of a contract with Allovue for budget development software in the amount of $542,362.50.

In addition to teachers, the district continues to struggle to hire bus drivers and has a shortage of maintenance workers. Interim Chief of Operations Richard Boyd presented a plan to contract with American Facility Services through Atlanta Public Schools in order to get schools cleaned during the summer in preparation for next fall.

Board member Dr. Joyce Morley wanted to know why the district hasn’t hired their own custodial staff.

“We don’t need to piggyback off of anybody. We are our own thing,” said Morley.

Boyd added that the district hoped to have more custodians on staff than it does. He also said that by the time his department realized they were not going to be able to hire enough regular maintenance staff, following a normal contracting process would take too long to get the work done in time.

“I knew I would come here and take a beating on this, but I’m willing to take it if it means the schools are clean,” added Bobby Moncreif, director of facilities.

After a lengthy discussion, the board ultimately approved the measure.

“I think this is exactly the kind of creative problem solving that we need from our professional staff,” said board member Allyson Gevertz.

In addition to staff shortages, there has been administrative turnover in the district. In the aftermath of the sudden firing of former Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Watson-Harris, 41 central office employees have left during May and June. This month’s human resources report shows that 34 central office employees left in the past month. Separation reports from the months of May and June in the previous two years do not show any central office staff leaving.

During a discussion of employee contracts, Morley went out of her way to say that the board was “never, ever, ever” approached with a plan to reconfigure the central office.

Decaturish reported last month that Watson-Harris presented a plan to reorganize the school district’s central office late last year, including a plan to have some staff re-apply for their positions. This plan was met with resistance from Board Chair Vickie Turner, Vice Chair Diijon DaCosta, and board members Hill and Morley, all of whom later voted to fire Watson-Harris.

Watson-Harris’ version of events has been corroborated by board members Marshall Orson and Allyson Gevertz.

Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley’s report focused on walk-throughs completed at the district’s high schools and planned for middle and elementary schools, as well as repairs that are currently underway throughout the district.

“We have a lot to do, and a lot remains. Safety and wellness of our students must remain a top priority,” said Tinsley.

Hill asked if the shifting priorities meant that some SPLOST VI projects, specifically Sequoyah Middle School, might not receive the funding recommended in the district’s Comprehensive Master Plan.

Boyd said that Sequoyah Middle School remains a priority because of capacity needs and the high number of temporary classrooms at the school.

During public comment, some community members expressed wariness that the district will carry out existing plans. Jonathan Peraza Campos said the district has promised to fix serious problems at Cross Keys High School in the past, only to break those promises. While Cross Keys High is currently slated to be modernized along with Druid Hills High School, Campos said the board should expect continued attention and protests until the work is actually done.

“We’ll be back,” said Campos.

In other district business, Burbridge requested the first of four yearly renewals with DTSpade for real estate advisory services in the amount of $100,000. The contract will run from Nov.18, 2022, to Nov. 19, 2023.

Morley, who frequently criticizes staff for bringing decisions to the board too close to deadlines, questioned Burbridge about why the contract renewal was being brought to the board five months in advance.

The board approved renewals of worker’s compensation and liability insurance with Star Insurance Company for $278,968 and property, machinery and fine arts insurance with Alliant Property Insurance Program for $2,248,394.62.

Anna Hill raised objections to continued use of the Istation Dyslexia Screener, on the grounds that Decoding Dyslexia and other dyslexia organizations did not recommend it. Renewal of the memorandum of understanding with Istation passed 6 to 1.

The board agreed to renew the district’s membership in the accreditation organization COGNIA for $149,000. Orson was the only board member to object, saying that his preference would be to use another accreditation organization, but that an alternative would be to only accredit the high schools.

“I think we spend an excessive amount to accredit elementary and middle schools for which there is absolutely no benefit. You only graduate from high school. I think we should focus on where we get the maximum benefit,” said Orson.

The regular meeting was preceded by hearings for both the budget and millage rate, and followed by a second hearing for the millage rate.

Community member Kirk Lunde pointed out that the budget provided to the public does not include a number for deferred maintenance, a topic that has become of great concern following revelations about the dilapidated state of many of the district’s facilities.

“There’s an additional $60 million for maintenance and operations over last year’s budget, but we don’t know where that money is going,” said Lunde.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Richard Boyd. The story has been updated with the correct information. 

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