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Accreditation report finds DeKalb School Board made ‘little progress’ on issue cited in last report

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Accreditation report finds DeKalb School Board made ‘little progress’ on issue cited in last report

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

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb County School Board is still a dysfunctional body pursuing individual interests instead of working for the district as a whole.

That is the takeaway from a report released by Cognia, a nonprofit accreditation organization, after a follow-up visit with DeKalb County Schools. Cognia scheduled its follow-up after its previous report found the board was not working collaboratively.

To read the most recent Cognia report, click here.

Decaturish first wrote about the Cognia observations in April. The report about DeKalb County Schools then was mostly favorable and said the district often, “Demonstrates noteworthy practices producing clear results that positively impact the institution.” But the report included 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 released in April said, “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.”

Cognia conducted a follow-up visit in November, a review that included interviews with board members and the unenviable task of watching more than 20 hours of board meetings.

The follow-up report, which the district released on Friday, Jan. 20, is more explicit in its criticisms of the school board.

The accrediting body didn’t see any real progress toward improving how the board functions, the report released on Friday says.

“After a thorough review of artifacts, conversations with all current board members, and interviews with 21 administrators, several central office administrators, the Georgia Department of Education Advisor, and the interim superintendent, the Monitoring Review Team has determined that little progress has been made with respect to Cognia Performance Standard 1.5,” the report says, citing the standard the board got dinged on in the initial accreditation review last year.

The report notes that DeKalb Schools has been churning through superintendents since 2013.

“The DeKalb County School District (DCSD) has experienced a steady and consistent change in leadership since 2013,” the report says. “Since that time, there have been six superintendents with two of them being interim and two being terminated by the board.”

The board still prefers the pursuit of narrow interests instead of looking at the needs of the entire district, the report found.

“Interviews with all seven board members indicate there is not a clear commitment to the vision and mission of the DeKalb County School District by all board members,” the Cognia report says. “School board members are responsible to all members in the organization, not just to those within their assigned regions. Every issue before the Board is a special issue, even when it is not particularly special to every individual board member. Board members are simply citizens until there is a quorum, and the meeting is called to order. During interviews with board members, frequent references were made to ‘my schools’ and ‘my constituents’ rather than to the system as a whole.”

In addition to harming the public’s perception of the board, the dysfunction of the board is also affecting DeKalb County Schools staff.

“Interviews across the district with 21 school administrators randomly selected from each of the seven regions indicate that board meetings are fractious and tense,” the report says. “These administrators indicated that the meetings were unpredictable, and they wished for a more collaborative spirit among board members.”

Cognia asked these administrators how they felt watching or attending board meetings.

One administrator said they are, “hard to watch, very combative” and they felt “uneasy that some kind of rant is going to happen.”

Another said,  “I wish they were more collaborative and collegial, and less confrontational.”

And another said, “Board members are disrespectful to each other.”

Several commented that they were, “determined to continue to lead their schools and support high-quality learning and teaching ‘in spite of’ the board,'” the report says.

The report does not call out any specific board member by name. Board member Dr. Joyce Morley hasn’t attended an in-person meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, preferring to attend via zoom, and she is prone to lengthy comments that often go off the rails and generate headlines.

A notable example of Morley’s behavior includes a meeting last April where the school board approved a contract for Interim superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley after the board unexpectedly fired the previous superintendent, Cheryl Watson Harris.

Board member Morley went on a lengthy tirade accusing other board members of ignoring previous illegal actions by the board and district, lying to the public, excluding her from decisions, and encouraging members of the public to call her a gender-based slur.

“It wasn’t illegal for board members to be behind someone in the community, excuse the expression, calling me as a board member a c***,” said Morley.

At another point, she implied board members had threatened each other.

“It constantly is shown that board members are willing to try to kill off each other,” Morley said during the meeting last April.

At that meeting, she also appeared to blame other board members for her being named in a racial discrimination lawsuit by superintendent finalist Rudy Crew, for which the district ultimately paid a $750,000 settlement. Crew alleged in a 2020 lawsuit that he was discriminated against due to his age and race. Court documents assert that Morley had complained to “multiple people” that Crew did not respect Black women because his late wife was white.

DeKalb County School Board member Dr. Joyce Morley virtually attends the boards regular meeting on May 9, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

While Morley’s comments stand-out in the press, Cognia made it clear that the board has a shared responsibility to work collaboratively. On that point, Cognia noted the board hasn’t worked to hold board members accountable for violating board policies.

“Interviews with all board members indicate that their processes for managing board members who are acting in violation of board principles and protocols or of board policy as outlined in their board handbook are not being followed,” the Cognia report says. “Specific questions were directed to all board members during the individual interviews about actions of the board that have been outside of the parameters defined by board policy. Examples of these violations have been cited in this report. In every case, no one could cite any specific way in which these actions were addressed in line with the procedures for addressing violations, although everyone could identify what those violations were.”

The team spoke to then-Board Chair Vickie Turner and “emphasized the importance of following these procedures with fidelity and integrity. This is the most important finding from the team. The board must monitor its own behaviors.”

Cognia directed the board to review and share its findings with the public, which the board did on Jan. 20. The board must schedule and host another monitoring review by December 2023 to show progress.

The school district’s press release skimmed over the more scathing parts of the Cognia report, claiming it “shows that District leadership continues to demonstrate progress toward governing within defined roles and responsibilities,” the opposite of what the report says.

“The report stated that board members could do better working together,” the school district’s press release adds.

To read the press release, click here.

Newly elected School Board Chair Diijon DaCosta acknowledged in the press release that the board has more work to do. Board members will hold a retreat in February to discuss Cognia’s findings and find ways to improve.

“This report outlines much of what we already know: There is important work to do,” Mr. DaCosta said. “The good news is that my colleagues on the board and I have a shared vision of helping improve and sustain an exceptional, world-class public school district. While we may have different ideas on how to get there, we are individually committed to collaborating to support our district leadership and each other in achieving this standard.”

Diijon DaCosta, Sr. takes the oath off office for another term on the DeKalb County Board of Education while his daughter Chastity holds the Bible during a ceremony at the Robert R. Freeman Administrative & Instructional Complex in Stone Mountain on Friday Jan. 6, 2023. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Reporter Sara Amis contributed to this story. 

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