DeKalb school board District 4: Incumbent, challenger face off

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Allyson Gevertz is seeking reelection to her seat on the DeKalb County Board of Education.

Bonnie Chappell, 66, is challenging her for the District 4 seat to represent the northeastern part of the county.

Gevertz has been critical of the board’s split decision to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent. Chappell says new leadership is needed.

Gevertz also advocated for the board to follow the master plan when it came to construction projects like modernizing Druid Hills High School. She opposed the new plan that favors small, but critical updates at schools rather than larger projects.

Chappell takes issue with Gevertz on this matter, too. She said financial problems in the district show that the controversial proposal for the school might not be the best move.

Chappell is a retired administrative assistant at a university. Gevertz is a former school psychologist who joined the board in 2019.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked the candidates five questions. Their answers are published in full below.

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AJC: Do you agree or disagree with the school board’s decision to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent?

Chappell: The superintendent was fired abruptly on April 26. The current school board released a termination letter stating she was fired “for convenience.” The board then hired an interim superintendent which will cost DeKalb taxpayers $650,000 for two superintendent salaries. This includes the severance pay of Watson-Harris’ 12-month base salary of $325,000. New details are reported every day about accounting irregularities in the hundreds of millions of dollars collected from local option sales taxes as well as $500 million from the CARES Act that was not allocated for students, teachers or school repairs. We need new leadership to review all these issues and put the money to work where it is needed.

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Gevertz: I disagree with the decision. In fact, when the board was deliberating the ratification of the termination decision, I moved to amend the language so the board could reinstate Watson-Harris. My motion failed. Principal reports, student data and our recent Cognia evaluation all indicate increased levels of support and accountability to our schools. Watson-Harris is the most student-focused leader I have encountered in all my years in public education. I join my fellow elected officials at the local, state and national levels in condemning the subversive actions of a subset of our board. A board of education should set an example of civility, professionalism, and ethics — this was an abject failure.

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AJC: The board recently opted not to modernize Druid Hills High in accordance with the comprehensive master plan. Instead, it voted to add the most critical projects at each school. If you were on the board, how would you have voted? If you are currently on the board, would you change your vote or do you stand by it?

Chappell: The vote over Druid Hills High revolved around the $6.4 million estimate for repairs vs. $60 million for full modernization. There are large discrepancies in the district’s finances, so it is not known if there is enough money for a full modernization. Many DeKalb schools are in desperate need of repairs. Our children and teachers should not have to go to schools with health hazards. Twenty-eight schools have Facility Condition Assessment Scores (FCA) under 60 points, with 26 of them being elementary schools.

Gevertz: The agenda item presented to the board was to place Druid Hills on the Local Facility Plan for modernization. It would not have committed us to completing the project or spending a dime — it would only have qualified it for potential state reimbursement (up to 75%). The surprise amendment removed Druid Hills modernization and added language committing the board to completing all high priority projects as soon as possible. Requests for additional time to study the proposed amendment were unsuccessful and it was pushed through by the same subset of the board involved in the unethical firing. It is unclear how the list will align with the $2 million comprehensive master plan, which was commissioned by the board to establish “strategic system-wide goals as the basis for future construction expenditures, planned facilities improvements, and redistricting plans.” I stand by my vote against the amended motion.

AJC: What do you think is the most important experience or traits for the next superintendent to have?

Chappell: Besides experience, the superintendent must communicate closely and professionally with the board and be proactive about the deficiencies in our schools.

Gevertz: The next superintendent should put students first. The DeKalb County School District has a history of prioritizing adult egos over the best interest of children. Over the last 20 months, district employees have reported a gradual culture shift. Recent moves toward zero-based budgeting (putting classroom needs first), meaningful professional development opportunities, equitable resource distribution, increased accountability and support for the whole child have just begun to have an impact. Cognia evaluators recently found a strong commitment for these new initiatives and urged us to “stay the course.” I would like the next superintendent to have the experience and willingness to continue on a course toward a student-focused district where every single decision benefits students and keeps our district from sliding back to the status quo.

AJC: Republican lawmakers worked this year to limit discussions of race in schools and prohibit “divisive concepts.” What are your thoughts on those efforts and the role of public schools in educating students about potentially controversial topics?

Chappell: America is a melting pot of cultures and races. We each have gifts to offer, so dividing by race is not a healthy strategy to build self-esteem of children. Educational programs should promote facts based on history, solid research, unity among people and avoid finger pointing. Class instruction should focus on the building blocks of education (reading, writing, math, science) so students can further study technology, medicine, engineering and many other subjects. Students are only in DeKalb schools for a fraction of their lives, so let’s give them a solid foundation and focus on love and respect for others regardless of physical differences and backgrounds.

Gevertz: Over the years, I’ve observed numerous classroom interactions. Often, kids bring questions and concerns to class — this happens regardless of the lesson plan. When children are making sense of the world, it is developmentally appropriate for them to ask questions. Research indicates that curiosity and questioning are prerequisites for learning and critical thinking. Asking trusted adults is preferable to asking peers. Fortunately, teachers are highly trained professionals, adept at handling kids’ queries. In the moment, educators may choose to incorporate a student’s question into the class discussion, deflect the question in order to stay on topic or defer the question to a later time where the teacher may privately converse with the child and/or parent. Instead of questioning our teachers’ ability to handle potentially controversial topics, I would like to see lawmakers dramatically increase teacher pay to align with our teachers’ tremendous impact on our children and our society.

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AJC: What is the most critical issue currently facing the DeKalb County School District? How would you have the district address it?

Chappell: There are many problems within DeKalb schools due to years of systemic neglect, financial mismanagement and failed leadership. The most critical issue is making sure our children get a proper education. Being a parent does not stop when their child enters the school building. Parents and teachers are partners in educating young leaders and future citizens. But ultimately, it’s parents who decide what’s best for their children’s education. Along with proper support for teachers, I will ensure communication and transparency between the school board and parents. When finances are in disarray, students and teachers get the short end of the rope. I will dig in and monitor expenses, so our children and teachers have the tools and environment to succeed.

Gevertz: Stability is the most critical issue facing DeKalb schools. In 2014, the AJC published an Op-Ed (i.e. commentary) I submitted upon my return from Harvard’s Public Education Leadership Program. I wrote: “It sounds obvious, but outstanding leadership is the most critical component of a successful school system. DeKalb has been through five superintendents in ten years, and we are in the midst of searching for another. It is absolutely crucial that our board of education gets this right.” Since joining the board in 2019, we are now on our fourth superintendent. We have failed to provide stability for our students and staff. To address this, our board must empower the superintendent to do the job, then hold the superintendent accountable. We must not micromanage, block, blindside or scapegoat. Shining the light on the board’s dysfunction, making dramatic changes to our governance approach and putting students first will ultimately make our system stronger.