Image troubles mount for DeKalb

Corruption investigations, school woes tarnish reputation. Damage could take years to undo.

The Wisconsin man relocating to Georgia hasn’t yet stepped foot in the state, but he already knows one thing: Stay away from DeKalb County.

Ryan Ward, a Realtor who specializes in the north metro area, said his client wants to buy a $1 million home and the north DeKalb city of Dunwoody was the perfect location. But after hearing that DeKalb’s school system is under probation from an accrediting agency, the potential buyer got cold feet, Ward said. Now he’s looking in north Fulton County.

“We eliminated DeKalb County from the search,” said Ward, who added that another client stopped looking in Dunwoody for the same reason and is closing soon on a home in Johns Creek. “The uncertainty itself will keep people from buying homes in that area. It’s tainted. It’s hard to unring that bell.”

In the past month, DeKalb has undergone a public relations nightmare:

  • Its school system — the state’s third largest — was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
  • The head of the county’s government, CEO Burrell Ellis, had boxes of documents carted out of his home by investigators looking for possible corruption.
  • A corruption case involving the former school superintendent has lingered for nearly three years, providing a steady drumbeat of negative headlines as it inches toward trial. “Prosecutors say debt led DeKalb school official to criminal enterprise,” was the AJC’s headline last week.

“It’s a worst-case scenario,” said Rob Augustine, a lawyer who headed the Development Authority when it helped bring the Mall at Stonecrest to the county a decade ago. He said selling the DeKalb brand to developers and businesses looking to relocate is harder than ever.

“You’re trying to dig out of a hole,” he said.

Some residents are doing more than complain. Home owners in north-central DeKalb, around the Oak Grove neighborhood, are talking about incorporating their own city. And a Dunwoody legislator is pushing to change the State Constitution to empower the city to create its own school system separate from the county.

Former legislator Kevin Levitas, an Oak Grove area resident, has held panel discussions on the pros and cons of incorporating.

“People are scratching their heads asking, ‘What is going on?’ ” said Levitas, who declined to say how he leans on incorporation. “There is a concern that money is being raised in one part of the county and not being spent there.”

DeKalb was once Atlanta’s bedroom community, known as a place with high-achieving schools and effective, relatively low-cost government where things got done. Manuel Maloof, the irascible barkeep who headed the county’s government in the 1980s and early 1990s, was famous for running a tight operation that focused on essential government services. In the late 1990s, it was even named an All-America City by the National Civic League.

But the county’s transition from majority white to majority minority was politically rocky. Vernon Jones, the county’s first African American CEO elected in 2000, governed during a tumultuous eight years fraught with controversy and racial undertones.

In 2008, citizens in the the predominantly white Dunwoody area of north DeKalb voted to form their own city. Brookhaven followed suit last year to guard against what they saw as inefficient government. In the intervening years, the county faced thousands of home foreclosures in the bad economy, causing tax revenues to plummet.

The recent risk to the county’s school accreditation, however, may be the most serious blow.

“I think Jim Cherry would be rolling over in his grave knowing we’re on probation,” said former DeKalb CEO Liane Levetan, referring to the longtime school superintendent who oversaw integration of the system and who was honored with a school bearing his name. “It’s a sad, sad day.”

A 20-page report by SACS, the agency that oversees accreditation, said school board leaders overspent during a time of economic crisis, improperly interfered with day-to-day administration, engaged in nepotism, feuded with each other and managed a district where academic achievement has lagged.

In 2008, the agency pulled accreditation from the school district in neighboring Clayton County for similar reasons. The action accelerated a plunge in property values and led to thousands of students and their families leaving the the county. Clayton got its accreditation back in 2011.

But the damage to the county’s image hasn’t been repaired, and its experience may be a warning to DeKalb.

“It takes three to four years to build a reputation; it takes just a day to lose it,” said Larry O’Keeffe, a longtime Clayton resident active in the effort to repair damage to that school district. “Perception is reality to the public, true or not. The parents have to get involved. They have to know they can fix this.”

DeKalb school board Chairman Eugene Walker did not want to speak specifically about the SACS report but acknowledged that “the lack of trust (from the public) is a problem.”

“False imagery and unfounded rumors are becoming reality,” he said. “We’ve made a number of mistakes and we intend to correct those mistakes.”

Asked about whether some board members should be replaced or step down, he responded, “It’s lay people who volunteer to do these jobs, to perform public service. The voters have the ultimate power (to remove them.)”

DeKalb Sheriff Tom Brown, who since 1985 has been the county’s fire chief, public safety director and sheriff, said the negative scrutiny, whether from SACS examining accreditation or District Attorney Robert James investigating possible corruption in county government, has hurt the county. He noted that the corruption trials for former school superintendent Crawford Lewis and former chief operating officer Pat Reid, who were indicted in 2010, have been delayed nearly three years.

“These investigations can tarnish our image if they drag on,” said Brown, who remains a golfing buddy with Lewis. “We need to get these behind us.”

Viola Davis, a nurse who heads a group called Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter, has been a thorn in the side of county and school officials for a decade. She said the recent spate of bad publicity may ultimately be a good thing. “Now they cannot ignore it any longer,” she said. “People are tired of excuses.”

At first blush, she said she is in favor of Gov. Nathan Deal replacing school board members. Then she quickly added, “But the governor has his own cronyism, so you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The problems with the school system and lackluster, but recently rising test results, have caused some families to send their children to private schools. It’s like you’re always waiting for the next shoe to drop,” said state Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody.

Taylor plans to introduce a bill seeking a change in the State Constitution to allow Dunwoody to create a school district. He said he expects to hear accusations that the effort is racially motivated, a charge also leveled when north metro communities incorporated into cities.

“Dunwoody is not 99 percent white,” he said. “My district (almost all of it in Dunwoody) is 30 percent minority.”

Davis, who is no big fan of the current school system, worries about peeling away a large chunk of property tax-rich Dunwoody to create a new, separate district.

“If they start dividing up these school districts, that’s the Pandora’s box,” said Davis, who lives in Stone Mountain. “No one knows where the money really is.”

Gil Turman, a former DeKalb school principal who founded the South DeKalb Neighborhood Coalition, said the unending bad publicity will give the Dunwoody school effort some momentum in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they pull it off,” said Turman. “If we can’t get this school thing fixed, this thing will go viral. It’s my hope DeKalb can pull this thing together.”

Sheriff Brown believes the county can. He notes that the county bond rating is relatively strong, the infrastructure is good, the county is located close to downtown Atlanta and it has solid transportation corridors. If he were selling the county’s image to potential businesses looking to come there, Brown said, he would tell them, “This is just a little hiccup.”

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