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Choosing superintendent is top priority for DeKalb Board of Education, but there’s a lot to do

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Choosing superintendent is top priority for DeKalb Board of Education, but there’s a lot to do

From L-R, Clarification & Mediation Facilitator Gilo Tisdale, Clarification & Mediation President/CEO Clara Axam, Board Member Vickie Turner, Board Member Anna Hill, Board Chair Diijon DaCosta, Sr., Interim Superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley, and Vice Chair Dierdre Pierce participate in the DeKalb County School Board retreat on Feb. 21 at the Inn at Serenbe. Photo by Sara Amis.

This story has been updated. 

DeKalb County, GA — The first day of the DeKalb Board of Education’s retreat, held at the Inn at Serenbe among picturesque rolling hills and aggressively twittering birds, was full of politely framed reckoning. After a scathing report on the DeKalb County School District by Cognia, which named the board itself as the district’s weakest link, the board spent most of the day focused on Cognia’s recommendations.

All board members were in attendance on Feb. 21 except for Dr. Joyce Morley.

After interviewing board members and watching hours of recorded meetings, Cognia’s report included criticisms that the board did not adhere to appropriate procedures consistently, neither its own policies nor Robert’s Rules of Order.

The report further indicated that board members attend training on policies and procedures, but don’t apply it. The board articulates policies and expectations for members clearly and well, but doesn’t implement them or impose appropriate penalties for rule violations by board members.

Melanie Slaton of Hall, Booth, and Smith, the district’s new legal representation, said that the problem wasn’t with the policies themselves. She described the district’s board handbook as best practices. Vice Chair Deirdre Pierce said that many districts have copied it.

“You have a great foundation, but it doesn’t do any good if you don’t follow it,” Slaton said.

Cognia also observed that board members work in isolation, don’t communicate or collaborate well, are distrustful of each other, and let board dynamics affect the way they interact with stakeholders and constituents.

The board members who were present seemed to be making a game effort at improving the situation during the retreat, and the acrimony that sometimes appears during meetings was absent.

As for the district as a whole, Interim Superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley said that Cognia’s main directive was to review and revise policies, eliminate redundancies and seek input from stakeholders, while making sure board governance is following best practices both in policy and implementation.

Tinsley called the prospect of an overall revision of policies “exciting” and a chance to clean up decisions made piecemeal in response to state-level changes. She hopes to submit a clean revision of policies to Cognia by the beginning of the next school year.

The board engaged Clara Axam of Clarification and Mediation, Inc., along with Slaton and Mariel Smith of Hall, Booth, and Smith, to guide them through the day, beginning with a refresher course on Robert’s Rules of Order.

A segment on board goals and policies followed. The board had done a self-assessment in 2022 using the Georgia School Board Association Governance Team Self-Assessment. Clarification and Mediation, Inc. at that time recommended using those self-assessments to determine what areas need improvement.

The results reflected some of the areas touched on in the Cognia report: governance structure, board and community relations, policy, personnel, financial governance.

Axam also reminded the board of previously stated aspirations: learning to build consensus, creating relevant policies to support board governance, timely receipt of documents to allow for preparation and deliberation, opportunities to build relationships, better constituent communication, and developing a legislative agenda.

Axam created a chart to relate GSBA self-assessment, Cognia report, and board aspirations. Primary areas of overlap included communication both with each other and constituents, clarity and relevance of board policies, and building the ability to work together.

Board members were asked to name the most critical tasks that the board must accomplish in 2023, and rank them through a process of small group discussion and a poll. As part of the process, Axam asked board members to consider what needed to be done, who must do it, what the time frame should be, and how they would measure success.

Hiring a permanent superintendent and creating an effective transition plan emerged as the board’s most immediate priority. During discussion, both groups listed it as a goal, and the second day of the retreat will be devoted to an executive session to discuss candidates for the job.

When Axam asked how the board could measure success, board member Allyson Gevertz said, “We don’t get sued? That’s what I put down, no lawsuits.”

School safety was the second priority, and board cohesion the third. Slaton emphasized that the list was just a snapshot of where their minds were at the moment, not carved in stone.

“Goal setting is an iterative process,” Slaton said.

Before the group adjourned for the day, Tinsley offered a lengthy progress report on the various tasks that her administration had been working on over the last year.

Completed goals include hiring new Chief Operations Officer Erick Hofstetter, creating a system to ensure Title IX compliance, and improving teacher retention via the timely issue of contracts, incentives, and monitoring school climates.

The Georgia Department of Education corrective action plan for facilities, which prompted by the outcry over conditions at Druid Hills High School and other district schools last spring, is complete. Tinsley said that she was in ongoing contact with GADOE Chief of Staff Matt Jones.

Tinsley said that facilities improvements are ongoing and will be for a while. The district’s work order system, Munis, is up and running, and the enterprise resource planning system is in process.

“Most of the problems that we’ve had would be solved if we had an effective ERP,” Tinsley said. The ERP is planned to be up and running by April.

“So when they come in to do corrective actions reviews, we can say that it’s already done,” said board member Anna Hill, adding, “Good.”

Correction: A speaker in this story was incorrectly identified. This story has been updated with the correct information. 

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