Accreditation agency delves into complaints about DeKalb

For parents in DeKalb County, the pending visit of investigators from a regional education accreditation agency is like rubbing antiseptic on an open wound.

They know it’s going to hurt, but they hope it’ll do some good.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has already sanctioned the school system, dropping its accreditation a notch to “advisement” status. It could get worse after a half dozen SACS investigators arrive Wednesday.

DeKalb isn’t in immediate risk of losing its accreditation, as happened to the Clayton County school system in 2008, contributing to a downward spiral in student enrollment and local property values.

The more likely result, based on what SACS already knows, is a further drop in accreditation, which could lead to accreditation loss six months to a year from now, said Mark Elgart, the president and chief executive officer of SACS’ parent company, AdvancEd.

“This system needs to take decisive, positive action within a very short period of time,” Elgart said.

The agency is responding to dozens of complaints from parents, public officials, school employees and others. SACS, a private association, hasn’t revealed many details, but Elgart said the allegations center on a common theme: The school board sticks its nose where it shouldn’t — notably in hiring and firing — while failing to take care of its own mission of financial oversight. If SACS takes action, it will make those complaints public.

Too often, Elgart said, the school system has spent more taxpayer dollars on things such as attorney fees than it put aside in the budget. During tense budget discussions this summer, administrators revealed that the school board had failed to account for $44 million in “fixed” expenses, such as utility bills. That precipitated painful cuts, including the loss of teaching positions, in the adoption of a $730 million budget.

School board Chairman Eugene Walker said he welcomes the scrutiny and knows of no improprieties on the board. He said the most frequently cited concern about the board is its public disagreements. Those, he said, are part of the democratic process and reflect the elected panel’s diversity. He said expenses are difficult to predict and budgeting is a matter of “opinion.”

“If the system is doing something it shouldn’t be doing, we will move immediately to address it,” Walker said.

SACS’ interest in DeKalb started a couple of years ago after the indictment of then-Superintendent Crawford Lewis in connection with a construction contracting scandal. (The trial is pending.)

The agency sent a team that recommended a list of changes. Officials checked off most of the items, such as hiring Lewis’ successor, Cheryl Atkinson, but they still had work to do. Earlier this year, SACS sent another accreditation team, which recommended a continuation of the subpar “advisement” status.

Barbara Arne spoke with SACS during the visit last spring. The mother of a Lakeside High student served on a couple of panels where parents discussed their concerns.

“It was about lack of trust, lack of transparency, concerns about how the money has or has not been allocated, legal fees, the lack of fiscal responsibility, the lack of focus on student achievement,” Arne said.

Little has changed since then, she said. “If they’re coming back,” she said, “then they need to listen to what has been shared before and do something about it.”

Parents across the county have voiced similar frustration for years.

The words “friends and family” get tossed around as an explanation for many of the system’s ills. It’s a knowing reference to an abiding suspicion that officials use the school system to dole out jobs to those they hold close.

“It’s been going on for years. We’re talking, like three superintendents down,” said Donna Priest-Brown, who has two sons in the school system. She said Atkinson seems to have stopped the practice and is trying to undo the past, but parents worry that it led to the hiring of some incompetent staffers.

Walker, the school board chairman, said that if any board member has helped a relative get an undeserved job it should be “exposed.”

“No board member should be pressuring the superintendent to hire anybody,” he said.

Priest-Brown welcomes the SACS intervention, although she also fears the potential consequences.

Clayton’s story testifies to those consequences. Four years ago it became the first school district in the nation in nearly 40 years to lose its accreditation. Clayton regained accreditation last year, but it was recently warned of new concerns, such as school board infighting and micromanagement, that could again jeopardize its accreditation.

Walker, the DeKalb school board chairman, said he doesn’t expect such an outcome when SACS issues its report sometime in late November. But such a loss would be “devastating,” he said.

“It would give the impression that we’re a second-rate school system,” he said.

It would also make it more difficult for graduates to get into college and for the school system to obtain some federal funds. That would spill over into the economy.

Leonardo McClarty, president of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, said companies won’t move to a place where they don’t think the school system will produce viable workers or educate their employees’ children.

McClarty said some damage to the public trust has already occurred. It’s seen in cynical comments at public meetings, on blogs and in the news pages. The probe could further undermine confidence, but McClarty hopes short-term pain will lead to a diagnosis and long-term recovery.

“What are you going to do to re-establish and reaffirm that trust?” McClarty said. “That’s the million-dollar question.”

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