DeKalb board members defend themselves against accusations that could unseat them

The nine members of the DeKalb County school board have one month to prepare for another showdown over concerns raised by an accrediting agency, and if they make a weak case they could lose their seats.

One by one, they went up to a podium Thursday for a first round of grilling by the Georgia school board over allegations of misbehavior. The allegations were brought by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools last month.

The non-governmental agency said it had evidence that the DeKalb board had mismanaged money and engaged in nepotism while academic performance suffered. The agency also dropped DeKalb’s accreditation to probation and threatened to yank it altogether. This was crucial because a new state law allows the governor to remove school boards in districts on probation when the state school board recommends it.

In a sign that some interpreted as ominous, the state board declined to vote on a negotiated consent agreement that would have given the DeKalb board three months to address 11 “required actions” demanded by SACS.

Instead, the state board voted to continue the hearing on Feb. 21. It will be an opportunity for DeKalb to make its case, said Barbara Hampton, chairwoman of the state board. DeKalb can bring in witnesses to contest the allegations, she said, and can demonstrate progress toward addressing the concerns.

DeKalb board chairman Eugene Walker said it looked to him like the state board had already reached a conclusion.

“I didn’t get the impression they want to help us improve governance,” Walker said after the four-hour hearing. “I got the impression that they want to get us off the board.”

During questioning Thursday, each of the DeKalb board members was asked whether he or she had taken the mandatory training on school governance and whom they represented.

Most, except the three new board members, said they had taken the training. And all but Walker were careful to say that, while they were elected by a district within DeKalb, they represented the system as a whole.

Walker, who was first up, said he represented the ninth district.

State board member Linda Zechmann wanted him to repeat that.

“You sure?”

“Yes,” Walker said.

It was a vital question because SACS accused the DeKalb board of turf politics, saying school board members were busy satisfying their constituents at the expense of the system as a whole. That, the organization said, had lead to infighting and rude public disagreements.

None of the DeKalb board members admitted to seeing any disreputable behavior, though some admitted that the debates at board meetings could get heated. Walker characterized what he saw as “vigorous intellectual discourse.”

Several state board members observed that SACS had been issuing critical reports for years, previously reducing DeKalb’s accreditation to “advisement” status. During a visit in 2011, SACS determined that DeKalb had completed six previously required actions but had yet to finish another two.

In its report last month, SACS lamented that some of the previous mandates were still unfulfilled.

DeKalb board member Jesse “Jay” Cunningham said board members were distracted by several things, including the indictment on fraud charges of the former superintendent.

“We kinda got sidetracked,” he admitted.

The delay was one reason state board member Mike Royal didn’t want to give DeKalb until the end of April to fix things.

“My problem with this is the issues that got us here did not happen overnight,” he said. Several times, DeKalb board members were asked why they hadn’t addressed the SACS concerns from years ago. “I never got a good answer to that question,” Royal said.

Despite disagreements about some of the SACS findings, DeKalb board members said they were determined to satisfy the organization, whose findings cannot be appealed.

“We don’t want to argue with SACS,” Walker said. “That’s an argument we can’t win.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.