Communication, hiring problems preceded DeKalb school chief’s exit

The turning point for Steve Green may have come in 2017, on the Friday before school would begin for DeKalb County's 100,000 or so students.

The district's leader took to the stage at Gwinnett County's Infinite Energy Arena in front of teachers and administrators hitting a few old-school dance moves to Bobby Brown's R&B classic "Every Little Step."

“Just as the song says,” Green would later tell them, “every little step counts.”

That day, he was talking about the marginal progress the district had made under his leadership.

But the song and dance hit a wrong note with many teachers who were lamenting the loss of their last planning day before greeting students returning from summer break. Also rubbed wrong were other staffers not invited to the event, including bus drivers made to drive teachers to the event but not invited in to partake. That the event was held miles away from their base also didn’t help.

When DeKalb set out in late 2014 to find a new superintendent who would lead by example, it got a respected veteran educator who never endeared himself to his staff and was said to rule by a my-way-or-the-highway approach.

“We never set him up to succeed,” DeKalb County Board of Education member Joyce Morley said in the spring, after Green announced his intention to leave following the 2019-2020 school year. “There was no transition plan in place (when Green arrived in 2015). We just let him come in here and do whatever, with no road map.”

Green could not be reached for comment for this story.

Under Green, the district rarely told its own story.

In 2017, officials devised a plan for buy-in from the community at large. It spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on billboards and T-shirts and began printing a magazine with the motto: "Our stories. Our way."

The Gwinnett County pep rally — pegged as a convocation by the district — was the culmination of that campaign, part of the district's efforts to brand itself as an inclusive, familial environment where teachers and administrators alike were collaborating to put DeKalb's best foot forward with the community.

But as schools were named to state lists honoring innovation, teams of students placed nationally in various competitions and alumni racked up major awards and national recognition, some of it would be relayed through the district’s magazine. Most of it would not. Interview requests on the untold stories were denied.

Green was never aware of what the school district community needed from his leadership, said Willie Pringle, a DeKalb County resident. By the time he arrived, Pringle said, there was a yearning for good news out of the district. When Green was selected in 2015, there was no public meeting where the incoming leader got to hear what the community wanted.

“If you don’t come in the right way, you’re not going to be successful,” Pringle said.

That communication discrepancy won’t continue, district officials said.

“With the launch of the new superintendent search, the district intends to improve our communications with the community and all stakeholders within” the district, officials said. “We are using all of our resources to make sure that the community, staff, parents and students are aware and providing input into the search process.”

The school district's outgoing leader held the superintendent post longer than anyone else in a 10-year stretch that saw it fall into debt and nearly lose its accreditation, then rebound with tens of millions of dollars in reserves and a multiyear accreditation approval. DeKalb Schools now boasts its highest graduation rate, but standardized test scores, until recently, were largely flat, and teacher turnover continues at the highest rate among metro Atlanta school districts.

Green’s nearly 53-month tenure was mired by both controversial and problematic hiring decisions that began with him getting the DeKalb County Board of Education to sign off on a national search firm to find candidates for high-level positions, only to hand-pick people who had worked for him at Kansas City (Missouri) Public Schools.

They included former human resources chief Leo Brown, who previously worked with Green in Kansas City. Brown was hired in January 2016, and school board members immediately began to question the process of hiring teachers, nurses and other critical employees. By early 2017, Brown had been reassigned and district officials were admitting to flaws in the hiring process such as not performing basic internet searches, verifying a candidate’s work history and making direct contact with references.

Several subsequent hires came under fire, including a woman who had been fired in Ohio for allegedly being violent with children and a teacher the district made retire for racist statements only to be mistakenly rehired as a substitute.

Green is currently under investigation by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission for failing to report teachers for various ethics violations, including one awaiting trial for his role in the gang-related murders of a Clayton County teen and his 11-year-old sister.

The issues were reflective of the multiple changes made in the district's human resources division. Five people led the department under Green in less than five years, including two interim leaders. The department is one of a handful currently without a permanent leader.

Green’s decision to allow Brown to employ uncertified teachers also raised red flags for some board members and education advocacy groups. Studies suggest student achievement suffers when students do not have certified teachers at the front of the classroom. The district employed about 300 uncertified teachers at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year. The practice also affects state funding, as districts receive money based on the number of certified teachers they have. One of Green’s former human resources chiefs, Bernice Gregory, ended the practice of hiring uncertified teachers at the end of the 2018-2019 school year.

“It should be illegal to have professionals in any capacity who are not licensed properly,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers. “It’s malpractice regardless of the profession. You must have highly qualified people in those classrooms, and they must be the people who decide who stays in a classroom.”

For the last year, parents and local groups have called for a forensic audit to see how money is being spent in the district. Administrative salaries grew significantly during Green’s tenure, as he added administrative leadership positions with hefty salaries and approved millions for support staff intended to be directed toward struggling schools to help with student achievement. District officials admit to being several years behind in submitting annual state audits, saying information for 2017 and 2018 should be submitted before the end of 2019.

“A new superintendent also means we have a chance to get our finances together,” Turner said.

Accountability moving forward, Turner said, must include the school board, which she said did little to hold the superintendent to any standards. In 2018, three years after Green began with the district, the school board for the first time defined goals for him to achieve. Those goals were never made public, with the district's attorney saying at the time that any goals are considered part of the superintendent's evaluation. By state law, that document is not public record.

“The voters have (local) responsibility here,” Turner said. “The school board race is more important than who’s sitting in the White House.”