DeKalb leaders react to school board probation

Grace McKenna, 15, wishes the grownups would get their act together.

The sophomore in DeKalb County fears an accrediting agency’s decision to put her school system on probation will lead to accreditation loss before she can graduate, affecting her college prospects. She’s already taken action: She put a petition online that calls on Gov. Nathan Deal to remove the DeKalb school board — and she hopes others will apply pressure, too.

“The board has made it difficult for us to get the education that we deserve and we need,” said Grace, who attends Lakeside High.

Others across DeKalb were also expressing alarm and doubts that the school board would correct itself. Some promised action aimed at policing the board or even starting a new school system. Others took a measured approach.

The governor’s office said Deal won’t get involved until the state school board reviews the matter. Under a law adopted last year, Deal can remove any board in a system on probation if the state school board recommends it. That could take months.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, said he’ll propose legislation to establish an independent school ethics panel with the power to remove wayward board members. He’s not confident the school board will take the steps demanded by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to restore accreditation, and said that failure would bring misery across DeKalb.

When nearby Clayton County lost accreditation in 2008, thousands fled the school district, property values declined and unemployment rose, though it’s unclear how much of that was due to the recession.

“This is not just a school board issue, it is a county issue,” said Jones, who leads the county’s senate delegation. “I think all the stakeholders should get involved.”

Jones’ colleague Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, criticized school board Chairman Eugene Walker’s response to the probation announcement. Walker said Monday that he didn’t think the board had done anything “egregious.”

“Walker seems not to be able to face reality,” said Millar, who chairs the Senate education committee. “The behavior of some of these people is egregious.” Millar said he plans to speak with Deal but said there isn’t much anyone can do until the state school board issues its own findings.

DeKalb chief executive officer Burrell Ellis counseled patience. Constituents, not realizing that he and the county commission have no authority over the elected school board, routinely press him to fix the school system. He said he understands why.

“We all have a responsibility, even if it’s not part of the job description … to support our schools,” Ellis said. He wanted time to think about the 20-page report from SACS, and said he will ask the school board for a public presentation on its response plan.

The SACS report accuses school board members of meddling in hiring decisions while failing to monitor district finances. For instance, no one interviewed by SACS investigators could say what happened to the money from a $12 million loan to purchase books. Meanwhile, DeKalb ended last year in the red and is maybe one financial crisis away from insolvency, said Mark Elgart, the president and chief executive officer of SACS parent company AdvancED.

Mike Davis, the mayor of Dunwoody, just wants out.

Davis said he believes nearly all Dunwoody residents want to separate from the DeKalb school system, and it’s something his city council is openly discussing. They are likely to ask state lawmakers in January for a measure — probably involving an amendment to the state constitution — that would let cities without school systems create their own.

“I think the system is too big, too corrupt,” Davis said of DeKalb. “Are we disappointed? Yes. Are we disgusted? Yes.”

That was also the tenor Tuesday night of many of the more than 100 responses to Grace McKenna’s petition on change.org. Her mother, Julie McKenna, said she hopes student pressure will bring intervention.

“What they’re having to shoulder because of the board’s incompetence is unfair,” Julie McKenna said. “I just don’t think that the people who created the problem are the ones who can solve it.”

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