DeKalb school board short on goals

The DeKalb County Board of Education is getting around to working with Superintendent Steve Green after three years. (Marlon A. Walker/MARLON.WALKER@AJC.COM)

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The DeKalb County Board of Education is getting around to working with Superintendent Steve Green after three years. (Marlon A. Walker/MARLON.WALKER@AJC.COM)

DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green was dubbed the “change agent” the district’s 100,000 children needed to transform student achievement when he was hired in 2015.

He’s made some progress.

But the school board that hired him also had a mandate for change, which it hasn’t kept.

Five years ago, the governor stepped in, dismissed board members and appointed new ones because board dysfunction and mismanagement nearly cost the district its accreditation. Little public evidence exists that the district's reformulated school board, which hired Green, is holding him accountable for those childrens' educations. Several board members say Green established his own goals early on, leading conversations about the district's direction.

A school board's directive is to set the vision and goals for the district, adopt an annual budget to fund those goals and hire and oversee a superintendent who will execute those goals.

"We've never held him accountable," DeKalb County Board of Education member Joyce Morley said recently.

During that time, Green received two contract extensions with bonuses, and there have been some board concerns about hires made during his tenure, expanding administrative positions, a six-figure public relations campaign – complete with billboards and t-shirts saying "I love DeKalb." There was also a $150,000 pep rally for DeKalb teachers, held in Gwinnett County, at the start of last year where few saw the benefit.

Board members spent several hours last month in a closed meeting working for the first time to define goals for Green.

When asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution what those goals are, the district had an attorney from Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough respond. She declined to share them, saying goals are considered part of the superintendent’s evaluation which, by state law, is private.

Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia, said the reason given for so much secrecy over a superintendent's evaluation process is so school board members can be more candid with him or her in their assessments.

"There is no good reason for that degree of opacity," Peters said. "I just don't buy that. These are highly paid public employees who have a tremendous amount of responsibility in our communities large and small, and they should be required to do their jobs and be held responsible for how they do their jobs in the full glare of public scrutiny."

Clayton County Public Schools responded to a request for superintendent goals by sending Superintendent Morcease Beasley’s.

Several other metro Atlanta school districts declined to share goals specific to the current school year, directing the AJC to strategic plan documents that list their priorities over a several-years-long period.

Gwinnett County Public Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said the school board does not give Alvin Wilbanks goals.

“They work collaboratively on the initiatives and priorities,” she said Friday, referring to the superintendent and board.

By contrast, Buford City Schools sent along Superintendent Geye Hamby's annual evaluations this week when his personnel file was requested.

Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, said if the board is too busy — or afraid — to implement better accountability measures, they should not be there.

“They are failing on the job as elected officials,” said Turner, a retired teacher. “If they’re not going to say something and do something … they need to leave.”

Kimberly Wright, who has several children at different DeKalb County schools, said it’s unfair for parents not to be able to know how someone in charge of their child’s education is performing.

“To me, I feel as if we’re being cheated,” she said. “There should be a certain level of transparency. What is the district’s intention on relaying any type of progress to the public?”

If individual board members feel Green failed to get proper marching orders, board member Marshall Orson said, they share some culpability.

“At the end of the day, we’re the employer,” he said. “To the extent it wasn’t done how we liked, a lot of it was on us.”

The board’s inactivity is a 180-degree turn from the 2013 board. Gov. Nathan Deal removed six school board members over concerns with board member micromanagement, infighting, incompetence and fiscal irresponsibility that left the district $14 million in debt. The state accrediting agency put the district on probation.

“The stakes in this case are high; the future of almost 100,000 students hangs in the balance,” Deal said in 2013 announcing the dismissals of the six board members.

The stakes remain on the table.

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DeKalb County District 2 board member Marshall D. Orson . ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

DeKalb County District 2 board member Marshall D. Orson . ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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DeKalb County District 2 board member Marshall D. Orson . ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Current DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond was appointed interim superintendent during the board crisis. Thurmond remained more than two years, and community support was growing to make it permanent after he worked to build a $90 million surplus. But the board began a search for a replacement.

Green arrived in 2015 from Kansas City Public Schools, where he led a turnaround effort for about four years for a significantly smaller district that was unaccredited and on the verge of state takeover. By the time he left Missouri, student test scores were up and Green was being praised for gaining provisional accreditation.

Former school board Chairman Melvin Johnson said at the time of Green’s hiring that he would bring the educational background to tackle student achievement and waning proficiency on the state’s standardized test.

Since Green took over, students have shown progress, but still lag state benchmarks. His is a district with a large number of students who are immigrants or come from low-income families, which makes the job a tough one. The students have shown slower improvement than students in neighboring districts in some areas.

The district's graduation rate has increased 4 percentage points since Green arrived, from 70 percent in 2015 to 74 percent last year. That increase was faster than the state average during the same period, but lags Georgia's 80.6 graduation rate for 2017.

"Our graduation rate is the highest it has ever been," Green said recently.

In the same time period, Atlanta Public Schools’s graduation rate rose 6.5 points from 71.5 to 77 percent.

DeKalb also saw improvement on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, the state's report card for progress. Green partially attributed the improvements to $2 million in resources — including additional testing and instructional coaches and tutors — funneled into schoolhouses. While the district increased its score from 66.6 in 2016 to 69.9 in 2017, it still lagged behind the state average, 75, and individual school scores for about 25 percent of the district declined.

Green said he was pleased with how students have fared on the Georgia Milestones tests — which measures a student's proficiency in several key subjects including math and reading comprehension, and helps determine their college preparedness — but test scores show DeKalb's students struggle with its reading and math at ages where experts suggest proficiency should be achieved for future success. This year, 50 of the district's 79 elementary schools declined in reading comprehension for third-graders, which experts have said will find them struggling in later years, including learning other subjects. For eighth-grade math, as in recent years, no DeKalb school had more than 60 percent of its students score proficient or better in the subject.

Critics have questioned some of Green's budget decisions, as more than $50 million more has been earmarked for administrative spending. It includes hiring additional regional superintendents and adding regional cabinet members, a decentralization move Green said would get resources to schools faster than central office. Teachers have said the only thing they feel about the administrative overhaul is the continued pinch from those funds not being used in the classroom.

Orson said the impact of several initiatives started over the last three years have yet to bear fruit.

“There’s a part of me that’s never satisfied,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence overall in the decisions that are being made and the pieces that are being put in place. (Green) has a good grasp on the core education issues and what we need to do to successfully educate children.”

I don’t think (Green isn’t doing his job), because that undermines the progress we’re making,” he said.

Board member Stan Jester, a frequent critic of the school system whose opinions aren’t always the same as his peers, heaped praise on current board chairman Michael Erwin, who was elected by the board in January, for leading the board this summer toward establishing goals to guide the superintendent toward better student achievement outcomes.

Jester has been on the board since 2015, but his wife, Nancy, was a board member for several years before he was elected.

Green, Jester said, has been more collaborative than previous superintendents. Because the board is mandated to meet only once a month, Jester said, they meet individually with Green on issues in their districts. That, he said, may factor into why there’s been so little group accountability for Green.

“It allows the superintendent to operate behind closed doors,” Jester said. “In operating like we do, it benefits some of the board members that the superintendent is doing what they want him to do.”

Several board members have mentioned areas where Green could improve, including communication, and student achievement.

Erwin said he is trying to continue collaborative efforts that he said were already in place under Melvin Johnson, his predecessor.

“It’s always been a team thing for me,” he said.

He admitted shortcomings, saying that accountability needs to be more defined between the board and the superintendent, as well as with the superintendent and the district staff.

“It’s a new relationship,” Erwin said. “It’s a relationship that’s evolving. You start at point A and get to point B. As superintendent, you say how the district is going to get there. It’s forever modifying. I think it’s gone well. At the end of the day you have seven voices … and we have to allow those voices to resonate into one voice that lists all those goals that need to be done.”

Erwin said the board began work recently to modify goals from last year to give Green measurables for the current school year. He could not name specific targets.

“The main goal is always about the well-being of our students and making sure we have those things in place,” he said.

Jester said while he is hopeful recent changes will garner more accountability from Green, he remains skeptical of the board’s collective ability to fight for the district’s students.

“I’m not sure the board has the fortitude to hold him to those goals,” he said, saying a collaborative spirit would mean some members would lose ground with Green on their individual concerns.

Chris Stewart, an education activist and former Minneapolis Public Schools board member who runs the blog Citizen Ed, said a district that doesn't clearly convey its goals to the public does a disservice to its community at large.

“As a school board, not only do you manage and set the goals and expectations, you’re supposed to be transparent because the public is your constituency,” said Stewart, who sat on the Minneapolis Public Schools board from 2007 to 2011. “As a school board member, you are supposed to be the public’s representation of power within that democratic body to hold (the superintendent) accountable. Many start acting like they’re beholden to the district when, in actuality, it’s the opposite.”

Graduation rates for 2015, 2016, 2017

Georgia: 78.8    79.4    80.6

APS: 71.5    71.1    77

Clayton: 66.4    69.1    69.6

Cobb: 81.4    83.8    83.6

DeKalb: 70    70.3    74

Fulton: 85.3    86    86.8

Gwinnett: 78.1    79.6    80.9