DeKalb County’s school board voted to issue a statement urging residents vote against Gov. Nathan Deal’s school takeover plan. (AJC FILE PHOTO)

DeKalb school board urges residents to reject state takeover

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal for a state takeover of failing schools won’t improve them more than local districts’ efforts, DeKalb County school board members said before approving a statement urging county residents to reject Deal’s plan Monday.

With the move, DeKalb County, which has more failing schools than any other school district, is adding itself to the political battle over state versus local control. Money is being spent on television ads. And state groups are voicing support for both sides of the argument ahead of the November election, where voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment that would give Georgia authority to pluck local schools out of districts and put them in a statewide district run by appointees.

Deal has spent political capital pushing the amendment, saying local schools have had decades, in some cases, to try to give children what they deserve, a good school and way out of poverty. They’ve had a chance. It’s time for action, he has said.

In DeKalb, 26 of the district’s schools are on the state’s list of those considered failing.

Board chairman Melvin Johnson, reading a joint board statement, said local control and community involvement are the best medicine for improving academic achievement.

“We believe it is not only wrong, but risky to give up local control to a new state bureaucracy,” Johnson said, adding the board “strongly believes the answer to improved academic outcomes and achievement is in the classroom and school house.”

Under Deal’s plan, schools subject to state takeover score below 60, on a 0-100 scale, over three consecutive years on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, a scorecard on school quality.

DeKalb district administrators have already begun to address achievement issues in the last year and say they are seeing results. About $6 million was earmarked in the current budget pushing additional resources to the lower-performing schools, officials said. That includes offering after-school tutoring, hiring additional staff and signing and retention bonuses for teachers willing to work in challenging schools. About $1.9 million more was to address literacy and mathematics deficiencies. Fifteen of the DeKalb schools at risk for takeover are already within five points of reaching the state’s minimum target.

“Those results are indicative of progress that will continue,” Superintendent Steve Green said after commending the board for its stance. “That progress should continue uninterrupted. There’s no magic elixir that’s going to turn schools around.

“But we can do this. We will do this.”

Several Georgia districts — among them Bibb, Cherokee, Clayton, Fayette, Henry, Jasper, Newton, Richmond, Rockdale, and Savannah-Chatham — have approved resolutions opposing the Opportunity School District plan. Deal said recently some school board members around the state have allowed failure to fester in some districts for generations, with mostly poor and minority children as victims. He added that they would not have sent their own children to failing schools.

Deal told education leaders earlier this month at a conference that he’s lost patience with local governing boards, and that his school reform plan would help many avoid the prison pipeline.

“Education reform is the best and the ultimate criminal justice reform,” Deal said.

He said the state, under his watch, has spent proportionately more on education that any Georgia administration in the last 50 years, and said increased education funding in the future would include making annual raises for teachers mandatory.

Johnson said he and other board members have done their homework on whether state takeover has worked elsewhere. Reform efforts have been met with mixed reviews in several large districts across the country, including New Orleans.

“I’ve seen no substantial increase in student achievement in any of those situations,” he said of his research.

Board member Joyce Morley said addressing school deficiencies in-house, and with community support, is the logical approach.

Board member Marshall Orson agreed, saying state education officials would have said long ago whether systemic deficiencies existed in DeKalb’s teaching plan. He added the district needs help addressing the poverty that can hinder education.

“We can’t continue to engage in this fiction that people don’t come to school with what they’re facing in their communities,” he said. “That’s the only way we’re going to meaningfully change the circumstances for those children.”

Board member Stan Jester, the lone vote against the district statement, said the district should be prepared in case the in-house efforts don’t succeed in addressing years of damage.

“If this does not work for us, what’s the plan?” he asked. “Whether you like OSD or not, what’s the plan if we can’t improve academic achievement?”

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