DeKalb schools chief finalist: District’s woes are in his ‘sweet spot’

Rudy Crew has built a career around addressing equity issues in some of the largest school districts in the country. (HANDOUT PHOTO)

Combined ShapeCaption
Rudy Crew has built a career around addressing equity issues in some of the largest school districts in the country. (HANDOUT PHOTO)

Rudy Crew expected the firestorm.

Crew, likely the next DeKalb County School District superintendent pending a school board vote, said he knows what an Internet search his name turns up. He knows he’s 69. He knows about the public clashes with previous employers, the allegations that he took personal trips on taxpayer dollars, bullied subordinates, obstructed a rape investigation.

He also knows he has a lot of work ahead of him convincing some parents and community leaders here to work with him, especially those who have said publicly the district does not need a leader with his reputation.

“What comes up in a Google search is just evidence of going through a war,” Crew said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “I’m willing to stand in the breach. I’m not pushing this off on bad politics. It is what it is. But we do not have the architecture we need to fully support our young people, particularly those coming from poverty.

“You’re going to have to have courage for us to work together.”

Crew’s selection has renewed conversations around the DeKalb’s north-south divide and addressing educational disparities between the haves and have-nots without any section of the district feeling left out.

Some residents have used protests, email campaigns and virtual town halls to mention Crew’s work to address educational equity, with some parents concerned that “better off” schools will be hurt as resources are pulled from them and used elsewhere.

The county is separated more by economics than by race, with recent pushes for new cities in more wealthy pockets across the county often rooted in a desire for local control of resources.

“The north end and the south end fight, and that’s all about resources,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers and a longtime DeKalb County resident. “People whose houses are in areas where they pay more taxes are especially concerned about the integrity and the overall perception of the district. You can paint that picture many different ways.”

Crew said he is no stranger to those concerns, having built a career in school districts where equity issues were visible.

He also knows the DeKalb district has cycled through a handful of leaders in the last decade while its budget more than doubled and student achievement remained largely flat.

“They’re not issues that are just in DeKalb,” he said. “It’s wherever there is a dense pocket of poverty. This is in the sweet spot of the work I do. Why do doctors choose to work in the ER? Because they think they can save lives.”

Crew, who would start on July 1, is nearly through a 14-day waiting period school districts must take between announcing finalists and hiring someone, as required by Georgia law.

He would replace Ramona Tyson, who has said she will retire this summer. In November, Tyson replaced Steve Green, who had run the district since July 2015 before he and the board agreed to part ways. Last May, Green announced plans to leave the district at the end of the current school year.

Turner said she has had many conversations with colleagues across the country who have previously worked with Crew. Much of those conversations center around the value Crew finds in public education and his enthusiasm for addressing problems similar to those going on in DeKalb.

“Right now, there’s a level playing field with this new man coming in,” she said. “He has a big job to do as any superintendent does, and if anybody should be given a honeymoon period, this one should.This is a man who has led the largest school districts in the country and remained unscathed.”

Crew spent much of his career as a teacher and principal in California and Massachusetts before leading some of the largest school districts in the country, including New York City and Miami-Dade County in Florida. Along the way, past news reports show Crew clashed with leadership, faced questions over spending decisions and was accused of bullying a subordinate in his current job and allegedly obstructed a sexual assault investigation in Florida involving a 14-year-old student and a high school football player later charged with lewd and lascivious assault on a minor.

Lester Young, who was a community superintendent when Crew was chancellor of New York City Public Schools between 1995 and 1999, said he considers Crew “one of the premier educators in America.”

“He’s been able to get the naysayers to give him the space to get the job done and judge him from there,” said Young, currently an at-large member of the New York State Board of Regents.

Count DeKalb County Board of Education member Stan Jester among the naysayers.

“I expect a lot of controversy over any experienced tenured senior administrator, but not these types of controversies … over sexual assault cover-ups,” said Jester, who joined the board in 2015 and will step down later this year after deciding not to seek another term. “I was concerned with his record in Oregon on not being on the job 25% of the time. He was always doing something else.”

Despina Lamas, a parent of two DeKalb students, said she fears Crew could undermine work done in recent months to steer the district in a positive direction.

“The school board and Mrs. Tyson have done a great job trying to steer things in the right direction,” said Lamas, a member of the education advocacy group Educate Dunwoody. “They’re taking a step backward with Dr. Crew, who has a consistent pattern of instability and questionable choices in the past.

“He’s all style, no substance.”

DeKalb Schools’ Superintendent Finalist

Name: Dr. Rudolph F. "Rudy" Crew

Age: 69

Current job: President, Medgar Evers College, New York

Employment highlights: Chief Education Officer, State of Oregon; Superintendent, Miami-Dade County Public Schools; Chancellor, New York City Public Schools