DeKalb school board draws scrutiny

An accrediting agency wants the DeKalb County school board to answer allegations that it has mismanaged its oversight of the system and ignored key financial responsibilities.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said it’s received dozens of complaints from a broad spectrum of people in DeKalb. Parents, public officials and school staffers have alleged everything from financial mismanagement to undue influence in hiring — all while the school system faces a financial crisis.

“The allegation is they’re getting involved in areas that aren’t their responsibility, and then in the areas that are their responsibility, they’re not being effective,” said Mark Elgart, president and chief executive officer of AdvancED, the parent company of SACS.

In a letter recieved by school officials Wednesday, SACS said there is “significant concern” about whether DeKalb is meeting “at least” two of five accreditation standards. SACS gave DeKalb 30 days to respond, and will then investigate and issue a report.

“I don’t see where we violated any policy,” school board chairman Eugene Walker said. He said he wants to consult the 9-member school board before issuing any detailed response. He also said he needed more details than provided in the 3-page letter.

“They need to show some evidence of these things,” Walker said.

The allegations are from about 50 people over the past year, Elgart said.

SACS also has its own concerns. For instance, Elgart said, state audits over the past five years show the board spent 10 times more than it budgeted for day-to-day legal expenses — costs that were easily anticipated.

“One of the problems is the board has two law firms on retainer because they couldn’t agree on one,” Elgart said. “It is highly irregular for a school system to have two law firms doing the work of one.”

Elgart said it’s unusual for SACS to send a letter like this. It does so each year with perhaps 1 percent of the school systems in the 38 states where it operates, he said.

The allegations come two months after the board cut nearly $80 million — around 10 percent of operational costs — by laying off staff and increasing class sizes. One major cause of the cutting: amid the down economy, the board had to pay $44 million in unbudgeted expenses, for everything from recurring utility bills to routine legal fees.

“When you’re over-extending yourself in areas such as [legal fees],” Elgart said, “you’re diverting resources that could go to teachers and students in the classroom.”

Other complaints, according to the SACS letter, include board members undermining school administrators and influencing hiring decisions.

SACS already has the school system on “advisement,” a step below full accreditation, and has been pressuring officials for change since at least 2010.

Some parents say they’re glad to see the agency getting serious, but question why it took so long.

“Excuse me Mr. Elgart, but people have been banging on your door for four years,” said Caroline Lord of Tucker.

She has been active in system issues since officials considered closing her neighborhood school, Livsey Elementary, in a redistricting. The school was saved, but she said the more she learned the more she lost confidence. Lord decided to send her daughter to private school instead of Livsey and has considered selling her home and moving — a sentiment echoed by other parents.

Michelle Penkava, president of the Tucker Parent Council, said she knows people who sent allegations to SACS. She hopes they will spur changes, given last year’s hiring of Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson and the recent elections.

“I’m hopeful that with a new administration, three new school board members and the better-late-than-never SACS that maybe we’re on the path in the right direction,” Penkava said.

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