DeKalb kept silent on reason for school official’s absence

The DeKalb County School District has been tight-lipped about the circumstances surrounding the long absence of former Chief Human Capital Management Officer Leo Brown and his recent demotion.

First Amendment experts say the district’s handling of the situation is what not to do when it comes to government transparency.

Brown, an employee since January 2016, had not been seen since early December. Documents released to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the school district show he never missed a paycheck. Officials did not say whether Brown was working remotely or on leave.

In his new position, Specialist II Compliance, in the district's facilities and operations division, Brown will continue to collect his same $175,000 salary. District officials said in a release that Brown has already been reassigned, but have not responded to requests on whether he will report to work to begin that position.

According to the job posting on the DeKalb County School District's website, there since June 16, 2015, the salary for the job Brown now has ranges from $57,977.83 to $63,459.49.

Brown thanked the district in a release Tuesday where he mentioned dealing with "health challenges." The release came in response to a story by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his unexplained absence.

Illness aside, the district should have been more forthcoming with information about Brown’s whereabouts, said Charles N. Davis, dean of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

“Clearly, with respect to Mr. Brown’s underlying issues, be they health related … the taxpayers of DeKalb County and Georgia are owed an explanation why (Brown’s) office is not currently being filled,” Davis said. “This is a fundamental threshold public access question, and one that I simply can see no defense for.

“Transparency demands a response.”

The law states agencies shall produce responsive documents within three business days, or say how long it will take to produce a record. District officials received a request for information about Brown on Feb. 13, but did not respond til Feb. 22 — nine days later and a day after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first wrote about Brown's absence. Several requests still have not been fulfilled.

“A public agency’s failure to respond to an open records request is a violation of the open records act,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “It is mandatory, not optional, to respond to an open records request in Georgia and in all states.”

Ebbie Parsons, managing partner of Yardstick Learning, a strategic management consulting firm that deals in education, said he could not point to a legal requirement for handling a situation similar to Brown’s.

“Just from an intrinsic value perspective, this person may be somebody who doesn’t have a lot of resources,” said Parsons, a school systems operations expert. “I’m not just going to leave him out on the street because of some technicality. It may not be popular, but I’d rather know in good faith we did what we can to help out an employee who ran into something (out of his control).”

Superintendent Steve Green brought Brown to the district in January 2016 as his interim human capital management chief, to head the renamed human resources department. The pair had previously worked together at Kansas City Public Schools, where Brown served as chief human capital management officer under Green, then the Kansas City district’s superintendent.

Members of the DeKalb County Board of Education have said they were aware Brown was experiencing health issues. On several occasions during the school year, he left the district’s administrative offices by ambulance. Board chairman Melvin Johnson said handling Brown’s situation was up to Green.

“We were told that proper procedures were followed as it relates to a person who had medical issues, and they were following the law as to the medical aspect of it,” Johnson said. “That’s what we were told by Dr. Green.”

Johnson said he did not know whether Brown was working during his absence. Because he had not been with the district 12 months, Brown was ineligible for paid time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“I don’t know that,” Johnson said about Brown’s workload. “I do know he was on leave. The only thing we were told, without getting into the finite part of it … is Green said what he was going to do about it.”

Everett Patrick, a former high school principal who now works in the human capital management office, has assumed leadership responsibilities until a permanent replacement is named after a national search.

The school district is dealing with a growing teacher shortage, though it employed uncertified teachers this school year hoping skilled professionals without teaching credentials could help with hard-to-fill positions.

Brown has said he’s dispatched employees to job fairs and used partnerships with colleges while seeking teachers for hard-to-fill positions. The district has hired about 70 uncertified teachers since being awarded Strategic Waiver School System status, which allows flexibility from some state rules while holding districts to more strict standards. The district, however, has more vacancies (58.5) than it did this time last year (53.5), without employing uncertified teachers.

Brown didn’t arrive at the school district with the best fanfare.

A search firm was tasked with finding candidates for several jobs and paid more than $100,000 to do so. But the jobs went to candidates selected by Green and suggested by others at the school district.