DeKalb keeps Thurmond as school chief

Michael Thurmond will remain as superintendent of the DeKalb County School District for nearly two more years, settling the uncertainty that loomed with the expiration of his contract just months away.

Thurmond had never been a school superintendent, but after his performance over the past eight months, the board voted unanimously to extend his contract into the summer of 2015.

The board also deleted a word from his title.

“Mr. Superintendent, congratulations,” said school board chairman Melvin Johnson. “You are no longer ‘interim.’ You’re a superintendent.”

The 8-0 vote ensures a permanent leader of the state’s third largest district, which has been buffeted by one crisis after another over the past year.

Another crisis may be around the corner. The Georgia Supreme Court is expected to rule by November whether to restore the school board that led DeKalb into an accreditation crisis.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed DeKalb on probation in December, accusing the district of mismanagement. The nine-member board hired Thurmond to sort things out, but Gov. Nathan Deal quickly replaced six of them, leading to the court dispute.

Some parents were surprised when the board picked Thurmond, since he’d never run a school district. The veteran politician and lawyer had a history of leadership, though. After serving in the General Assembly, he was tapped to run the Georgia Division of Family and Children’s Services and then served as state labor commissioner.

His transition into educational leadership is unusual but not without precedent.

More than a decade ago, Cobb County hired a retired three-star Air Force general. Heralded as a new kind of leader with bold vision, Joseph Redden offered $1,000 bonuses to teachers, counselors and other staff at high-poverty, low-performance schools. He also talked the school board into approving the system’s first tax rate increase in six years. He later was mired in controversy, though, criticized as a poor communicator.

Cobb was following an example set by Seattle, which in the 1990s hired retired Army Maj. Gen. John Stanford. Changes he wrought, including an emphasis on reading and increased budgets for schools with disadvantaged kids, earned kudos until his death from leukemia in 1998.

More districts have experimented with alternative superintendents, and an organization called the Broad Superintendents Academy trains them. Still, many prefer school leaders who know the nuance of educational policy.

Natalie Caudle, who has a daughter in a DeKalb elementary school near the North DeKalb Mall, said Thurmond seems to be doing a good job, but said she’d prefer someone with traditional training. “I think it would be nice to have a background in education,” she said.

But James Waddell, whose son attends Southwest DeKalb High, said it was a succession of traditional superintendents — including one awaiting trial on corruption charges — that led the district into a financial deficit and near loss of accreditation.

“Look what educators have done for us so far,” he said. “I think Thurmond’s fine.”

The man with authority over DeKalb’s accreditation said he doesn’t see traditional training as a requirement for superintendents.

Effective leadership skills are “critically more important than specific content area expertise in education,” said Mark Elgart, president and CEO of SACS’ parent company, AdvancED.

Thurmond’s contract was to expire in February, but now runs to June 30, 2015. He’ll still be paid the same $275,000 salary.

Elgart said the board’s decision on Thurmond has no bearing on what seems to matter most to many DeKalb parents.

“It has no impact on accreditation,” he said.