Grant will pay for 8 doctorates in DeKalb

The DeKalb County School system is planning to send a handful of administrators back to college at taxpayer expense.

The school district wants to use about $345,00 of its taxpayer-funded federal Race to the Top grant to put eight administrators, including four high school principals and two assistant principals, through a three-year doctorate program at the DeKalb campus of Mercer University.

Twenty-five other Georgia school districts also receive Race to the Top grants. But DeKalb is the only only one using some grant money earmarked for teacher and school leader training to add to the 130 Ph.D. holders the system already has in leadership roles.

The idea doesn’t sit well with some in DeKalb.

“Why as taxpayers should we pay for their Ph.D.s?” asked Robert Richardson, a retired real estate agent. “With a Ph.D., they’ll probably get paid more money. They should pay for their own.”

In Georgia, pay raises are automatic for teachers who get a master’s degree or doctorate in their specialty.

Local school districts have discretion to give similar rewards to administrators who attain advanced degrees. A DeKalb school spokesman said there’s been no discussion of that for these eight doctoral candidates, four of whom, as high school principals, make between $85,000 and $111,000 annually.

Cheryl Atkinson, school superintendent, defends using tax money to pay for the eight administrators to obtain doctorate degrees that teachers and others usually pay for themselves.

“We need to begin to build a bench so there are people ready to take on and sustain the reforms that are put in place,” she said.

The money can’t go to pay bus drivers or fill other budget gaps, Atkinson said. As a condition of the grant, the money has to be spent on training for teachers and school leaders, she said.

David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, said he had not heard about the district’s plans and would like to know more about how the eight were selected and how the opportunity was advertised.

“I think it’s going to cause some resentment when people aren’t getting raises and there’s going to be this select group of people that got picked,” Schutten said.

Schutten said the money might be better spent bringing in good substitute teachers who could free up regular classroom teachers struggling with class management. This would allow the struggling teacher time to observe other teachers “who have it down,” he said. “With classes of 40 and 50 kids in high school, classroom management is paramount.”

Atkinson said the doctoral program is tailored specifically to address issues unique to DeKalb County, such as its high concentration of refugees and financial problems.

About two dozen aspiring leaders completed applications and interviews for the eight openings, Atkinson said.

“We certainly wished we could have had more in the program,” she said. “But we have to start small and do it well.”.

Between 1994 and 1998, the school system put some staff through a doctoral program at Clark Atlanta University, though Atkinson acknowledges she has not investigated to see if that proved to be a worthwhile investment of taxpayer money. “To be honest, I have not drilled backwards,” she said. “I have so much in front of me.”

The superintendent said there’s also a precedent in the system’s policy of paying for the training for teachers who want to be certified to teach gifted classes.

“We offer our teachers the opportunity to receive gifted certification at the district expense because that’s going to make them better at what they do with children,” she said. “The same goal is to offer something that is going to make these leaders better at what they do and ready to take on a greater challenge when that opportunity presents itself.”

Sonny Jester, former vice chairman of the DeKalb County Public School Foundation, a fundraising organization, said DeKalb has a history of lavishing resources on the administration instead of the classroom. “If that money can be used for something other than Ph.D.s for central office administrators, I think it would be a better use of the money,” he said.

Teresa MacCartney, deputy state school superintendent for Race to the Top implementation, said, DeKalb “is unique” among the state’s 26 Race to the Top districts in using the grant money to pay for employees’ Ph.D. programs. But, she said, other districts, including Gwinnett, have or are developing leadership programs.

Sloan Roach, spokeswoman for Gwinnett County schools, said the district has had long-standing leadership- development programs for teachers who want to become school leaders and for assistant principals who want to become principals that are continuing under Race to the Top. But no one emerges from these programs with advanced degrees or pay raises, Roach said.

Those chosen for DeKalb’s program had to commit to stay with the district two or three years after completing their doctorates, said Jeff Dickerson, school system spokesman. Each has been with the district at least 10 years, he said.

The state Department of Education has to sign off on the school system’s proposal, and MacCartney said that could happen as early as Friday.

In the meantime, the eight have already begun the program and are paying the initial costs themselves, Dickerson said.

Once the state approves funding, the district will pay for their remaining coursework, he said.

The eight are enrolled only in evening courses and are expected to complete all their coursework and additional requirements on their own time, Dickerson said.

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Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this report.