DeKalb school board District 6: DaCosta faces two challengers

DeKalb County Board of Education District 6 candidates from left: Venola Mason, Janet Hughes and Diijon DaCosta

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DeKalb County Board of Education District 6 candidates from left: Venola Mason, Janet Hughes and Diijon DaCosta

Two candidates — Janet Hughes and Venola Mason — are challenging incumbent Diijon DaCosta for a chance to represent the eastern part of DeKalb County on the Board of Education.

DaCosta is part of the board majority that voted to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris from her role as superintendent. When asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution whether they agree with the move, Hughes and Mason didn’t say. Instead they both pointed a finger at the board. Hughes said leadership turnover is concerning, and Mason said there should have been more transparency.

DaCosta also voted to change the district’s overall plan for building repairs — skipping the modernization of Druid Hills High in favor of critical updates at schools. Mason said she would have voted in favor of modernizing Druid Hills High as outlined in the district’s master plan. Hughes did not say how she would have voted.

DaCosta is the board’s vice chair. Hughes, 70, is a licensed counselor. Mason, 42, is a former teacher.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked candidates to answer five questions. DaCosta did not return multiple requests to participate.

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

Hughes: The latest firing of a superintendent is symptomatic of a deeper issue, probably within the bureaucracy or board itself. I understand that the DeKalb school board has fired four superintendents and three interims (since 2010). The last, Cheryl Watson-Harris, had been in her position for less than two years. We must ask the question: Did they vet her wisely? Obviously, the way they chose to fire her was unprofessional. They are blaming rather than taking responsibility for what they did or failed to do, and their decision to hire her in the first place. … What have they been doing during the last four years? Why now speak up?

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Mason: It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing with the decision — it is about the transparency behind the process. From the community perspective, the decision seemed very abrupt and without explanation. I hope that moving forward the board will be more transparent about these major decisions and engage parents and the community before making such a decision that has a lasting impact on us all operationally and financially.

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?

Hughes: How is the board defining modernization and what is critical? They classified removing mold, keeping the sewage from overflowing, protecting electrical outlets as modernizing Druid Hills High? They are not prioritizing appropriately. For example, they proposed E-SPLOST funds for nonessentials such as $782,000 for athletic field fence installation, $301,000 track and turf installation and a mass rock removal. DeKalb County has plenty of taxpayers’ money to provide a safe environment for its students. Critical improvements must ensure that all schools, including Druid Hill High, provide a safe environment for all its students and teachers. The schools should pass the DeKalb (County) Board of Health standards before they can be approved for use by its students and teachers.

Mason: As a community, it is our responsibility to ensure equity by providing all our students with a safe learning environment. Based on the dangerous conditions reported about Druid Hills High School, no student should have to learn in that environment. There was a lot of input from various stakeholders into the development of the comprehensive master plan. The decision not to modernize Druid Hills High did not consider stakeholder recommendations, contradicted the comprehensive master plan and, therefore, I would not have voted against these modernizations. As a board member, I would have raised any concerns about the recommendations much earlier in the process. I would have also solicited additional stakeholder input to ensure the board decision was student centered. It is our duty to operate in excellence and continuously maintain our schools so that they are spaces that our community can be proud of.

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

Hughes: To have had a record of reducing waste, reducing administrative costs, providing an optimal environment for students to learn, maintaining administrative costs to no more than 15% of the budget, eliminating waste, creating a climate of transparency, maintaining open dialogue between members of the community and school employees, ensuring parental accessibility and, most importantly, having the will and courage to do it. They also must be creative and have a record of innovation and adaptability. Every school system is unique. Thus, they must be able to individualize their approach or management style to adequately suit the needs of the DeKalb County school system. They must have a record of doing so in several school systems with similar demographics.

Mason: There has been a revolving door of superintendents in DeKalb County over the past 12 years. What we need is a stable leader who is future focused, with a track record of success. As a board member, we need someone who is dedicated to collaboration and focused on improving student achievement throughout the district. We need an experienced administrator who can restore morale and be a champion for inspiring our community of learners towards academic excellence. At the end of the day, we are in service of our students, and we need a leader who understands that the success of our district lies in our students’ success.

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?

Hughes: A teacher must avoid imposing their personal opinions and value system about controversial subjects that contradict the child’s family value system, religion, culture. The role of the educator is to provide students the tools (reading, writing, math, etc.) to think critically. Without academic proficiency, students are vulnerable to adopt the opinions of others without accurate analysis and understanding.

Mason: From my experience visiting districts across the country, I’m seeing a disconnect between the political agenda around “divisive concepts” and what’s actually happening in schools. Teachers should have the authority to teach the state standards, use resources that reflect the diversity in the student body and teach using different perspectives. Politics should be left out of education, allowing educators to focus on ensuring that every child has an equitable experience. We should also create opportunities to engage with parents so that they are informed and can share feedback on what is being taught.

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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?

Hughes: The major problem is the mismanagement and misappropriation of taxpayers’ dollars. DeKalb must have an agency not affiliated with the school system or its associates to thoroughly audit the school system to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. It is paramount to reduce bureaucracy to allow teachers to spend more time teaching and less time filling out paperwork. Removal of unnecessary jobs and positions in the administration is the first step. The board must be accountable, transparent and accessible to its constituents. The board members must not forget that they serve at the behest of the voters of DeKalb County.

Mason: A critical issue plaguing the DeKalb County School District is stable and consistent leadership. As stated previously, we have experienced a revolving door of superintendents in the past 12 years. The superintendent implements the school board’s vision and manages the day-to-day operations of the school district. When there is significant turnover at that level of leadership, it becomes difficult to operate in excellence and see progress because expectations and plans constantly change. As a board member, I will carefully vet and work collaboratively with our new superintendent to ensure they are given full support to carry out their role and have longevity in our school district.