Accreditation agency to investigate allegations of DeKalb schools mismanagement

An investigation that could threaten the accreditation of the DeKalb County public schools will take place next month, when a team visits to assess allegations of school board mismanagement.

Mark Elgart, the president and chief executive officer of AdvancEd, decided late Monday that an investigation was warranted, and sent an overnight letter to Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson telling her to prepare, AdvancEd spokeswoman Jennifer Oliver said Tuesday.

School board chairman Eugene Walker said there is an obvious lack of collaboration on the board, but he said he sees no reason for an investigation.

“We know we are not perfect. We know we have some kinks. But there is no — in my mind — mismanagement,” Walker said.

The team will review documents and conduct interviews for three days starting Oct. 17. The announcement comes less than a week after Atkinson responded in writing to an AdvancEd letter that described complaints of “undue” interference by school board members in administrative operations and of a failure by the board to “be good stewards” of taxpayer dollars.

Rather than addressing those allegations against her board, Atkinson’s response outlined more than a dozen initiatives that she has undertaken since the board hired her just over a year ago.

Elgart’s letter Tuesday had this assessment of Atkinson’s response: her initiatives hold promise, but the alleged misbehavior by her board “could have a significant, negative impact” on their implementation.

Accreditation — or the lack of it — affects graduates’ chances at college acceptance. A loss of accreditation, as happened in Clayton County in 2008, can also lead to an exodus of parents. Two years ago, when AdvancEd came calling in DeKalb, the local chamber of commerce expressed concern about property values, job retention and the ability to draw businesses. The chamber helped establish a group to vet candidates for school board, and was still making endorsements this year during the primary election.

The alleged mismanagement could have a direct effect on the classroom. The school board is accused of wasting money — such as $50 million in legal fees over five years — that otherwise could have been spent on teachers and students, Elgart said. He said there are allegations that school board members pressured for the hiring of friends, which, if true, he said, could affect the caliber of the staff, plus morale.

The half dozen or so investigators will promise confidentiality and confirm claims with more than one source, Elgart said. Anonymity is necessary, since staffers will be asked to be honest about the elected officials who oversee the system and hired their boss, the superintendent. “You’d be surprised,” Elgart said. “In a confidential environment, most people are willing to talk.”

The investigative team will make a recommendation on accreditation status. DeKalb is “on advisement,” which is less than full accreditation. The team could recommend a range of accreditaiton options.

Nancy Moore served on parent panels last year when AdvancEd sent an evaluation team, and she heard complaints from across the county about the school board. Moore, who is co-president of the Emory LaVista Parent Council, welcomed the new investigation.

“I do feel like it’s going to force something to change,” Moore said.

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