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Editorial: DeKalb School Board should remember its ‘communication agreement’ with the public

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Editorial: DeKalb School Board should remember its ‘communication agreement’ with the public

DeKalb County Board of Education members pose for a photo during DeKalb County Board of Education’s Oath of Office Ceremony at the Robert R. Freeman Administrative & Instructional Complex in Stone Mountain on Friday Jan. 6, 2023. (Left-Right) Vickie Turner (Dist. 5,) Whitney McGinniss (Dist. 2,) Diijon DaCosta, Sr. (Dist. 6,) Allyson Gevertz (Dist. 4,) Deirdre Pierce (Dist. 3) and Anna Hill (Dist. 1.) Dr. Joyce Morley, not shown represents Dist. 7. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This editorial has been updated.

We’re just a few short months into Dr. Devon Horton’s tenure as DeKalb County Schools superintendent, and we’re starting to see signs the school board hasn’t learned anything from its recent controversies.

The school board held a virtual retreat via video chat on Oct. 24 that was closed to the public. We are concerned the board used the retreat to discuss matters it was not legally permitted to discuss in a closed meeting. One of the items discussed at that closed meeting was a “communication agreement” between the school board and Horton. We have filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office seeking clarity about whether this discussion violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Why are we so interested in what the board discussed behind (virtual) closed doors? Consider the context in which this meeting occurred.

The board’s actions of late have put us in the interesting position of agreeing with someone who has contributed significantly to the school board’s dysfunction. Decaturish has previously criticized Dr. Joyce Morley for her conduct as a DeKalb School Board member.

We still sincerely hope Dr. Morley will reconsider her approach to her job as an elected official. However, we believe she is making valid points and asking good questions about what’s going on in the school district under Horton’s watch. Her divisive conduct during meetings is unfortunately a distraction from the important issues she’s raising.

It would be wise for the board to start publicly considering Morley’s points, too.

This week, Dr. Morley alleged that the district chief of schools Michelle Dillard hired her husband, Donald Dillard, to work for the district. A spokesperson for the district said Michelle Dillard did not directly hire her husband to work for DeKalb County Schools. He also does not report to her. The spokesperson said the job was publicly posted and said the board did not have to approve hiring Donald Dillard. The district’s nepotism policy can be found by clicking here.

We will assume, for the sake of argument, that Donald Dillard’s hiring was done at arm’s length. But in a district with a reputation for having an unofficial “friends and family” policy when it comes to employment decisions, hiring the husband of a new top administrative employee is not a good look. It’s worth questioning.

That’s not the only recent controversy involving one of Horton’s hires. During the summer, the DeKalb School Board approved the hiring of five central office staffers, including Antonio Ross as the district’s new Director of Leadership and Development. Ross is Horton’s former business partner, according to a report by a citizen who investigated Horton during his time as superintendent of Evanston/Skokie District 65 in Chicago.

The board hired Ross in a 6-1 vote. Morley raised questions about Ross at the meeting and voted against hiring him. Ross eventually declined to take the job with the school district after the issue received media attention.

That’s the context in which our school board held a virtual closed-door retreat on Oct. 24 to discuss how it communicates with its new superintendent. 

Dr. Morley did not attend the Oct. 24 meeting that prompted our complaint, according to a board member who attended it. 

At Decaturish, we expect all elected officials to conduct themselves in an ethical and transparent manner. Given the recent turmoil in the county schools, it’s imperative that this school board act with the utmost transparency. If it errs, it needs to err on the side of keeping the public informed.

The school board’s Oct. 24 meeting falls short of our expectations.

It leaves us wondering whether the discussions held in that closed meeting were allowed under the Georgia Open Meetings Act. An attorney we spoke to thinks this may be the case, but advised us to pursue a complaint with the AG.

Let’s review the facts we submitted in our complaint.

The DeKalb County School District on Oct. 23 sent out a public notice of the school board’s Oct. 24 virtual retreat and invited the public and media to watch the meeting.

“The virtual meeting can be viewed at the following link on DeKalb Schools TV (DSTV) by going to: www.dekalbschoolsga.org/communications/dstv ,” the email from the district said.

Previous DeKalb School Board retreats have been open to the public and the press, though the board has used these retreats to hold executive sessions as needed.

The Oct. 24 meeting notice included an agenda, which can be seen by clicking here. Here’s how the agenda appeared on the district’s website.

As you can see on the agenda, item C is an adjournment to a closed-door meeting known as an executive session under state law. The Georgia Open Meetings Act includes a narrow list of things a school board can discuss in an executive session. The Oct. 24 agenda states under item C that the school board held the executive session to discuss litigation, land, personnel, and student appeals. All are valid topics for an executive session, under the law. We have no issue with this. 

Here’s where it gets weird.

The next item, item D, includes a list of three discussion topics, including a “communication agreement between the board and superintendent.” Following the retreat, School Board Chair Diijon DaCosta said, “The items on the agenda were discussed in executive session due to it being personnel.”

The board met for three hours and adjourned around 5 p.m., DaCosta said. There was no public discussion about any of the items under section D on the Oct. 24 meeting agenda.

A video of the public portion of the meeting published by the school district shows DaCosta saying the meeting would adjourn after the executive session, but he did not say if the board would be talking about anything under item D within that executive session.

When any government body closes a meeting for an executive session, the officials are required by the Open Meetings Act to file an affidavit swearing that the matters discussed were permissible to be discussed in an executive session.

Decaturish asked the school board to produce a copy of the affidavit for the Oct. 24 meeting and cite the specific exemptions that pertain to the topics listed under item D on the agenda.

At previous school board retreats, anything that didn’t fall within the narrow legal reasons for holding an executive decision has been discussed publicly. It was our expectation that the Oct. 24 retreat would be no different. 

Because the board indicated this retreat would be a public meeting, Decaturish assigned a freelancer to cover it. The board did not reconvene to close the meeting, and the Decaturish team had no idea the retreat had ended until hours later when we followed up with the school board. One school board member, who asked not to be quoted, was under the impression the topics under item D would be discussed in public, based on the way the agenda was presented.

Decaturish is asking the Georgia Attorney General, through its open government mediation program, to weigh in on whether the DeKalb School Board could legally discuss those three topics in an executive session. 

Going forward, we are also asking for the school board to clearly communicate to the public whether it intends to meet publicly or privately when it schedules a meeting and to adhere to the requirements of the Open Meetings Act. Given what the district spends on its legal counsel and how much scrutiny follows this school board, it’s disappointing that we even have to say this.

Some readers may be rolling their eyes at this editorial, thinking we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. We considered that possibility, too. Do we think something nefarious happened at the Oct. 24 retreat? Probably not. But we do think that if the press allows these sorts of meetings to become commonplace through our silence or indifference, it could be harmful to our school district and, more importantly, our county’s students. 

Every local government needs a light shined on it, and that’s doubly true for our notoriously dysfunctional county board of education.

The discussion of a “communication agreement” between the board and the superintendent hints that the board may not always be on the same page with Horton. It raises questions about what the board doesn’t want the public to hear.

We’d like to remind the school board that it already has a communication agreement with the public. It’s called the Georgia Open Meetings Act, and the school board needs to follow it.

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