The DeKalb County School District is off probation, and AJC's Ty Tagami reports. Video by Greg Bluestein/

DeKalb schools edge back from accreditation precipice but still have work ahead

The parents of 99,000 students are feeling a measure of relief after a regional accreditation agency lifted DeKalb County School District’s probation Tuesday, praising the leadership. But the decision doesn’t mean concerns have ended, with a couple more steps to full accreditation and school board elections just months away.

“The threat of the loss of accreditation is no longer imminent,” said Mark Elgart, whose agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, precipitated a crisis in December 2012 that led to the governor’s intervention. SACS placed DeKalb on probation and threatened to strip accreditation altogether if the school board and superintendent failed to address management concerns.

Gov. Nathan Deal replaced six of the nine school board members, just after the old board replaced the superintendent. DeKalb’s new leadership has made remarkable progress addressing the issues, Elgart said, but he said the work is far from done and that the elections May 20 for the nonpartisan school board are a major concern.

“The election is critical,” said Elgart, who is the president and chief executive officer of SACS’ parent company AdvancED. The agency’s opinions about accreditation influence a school district’s reputation, and by extension its graduates’ chances for college admissions and scholarships. That, in turn, affects the local economy, since public education is a key factor businesses consider when choosing where to locate.

“This community needs to pay close attention to whom they elect,” Elgart said. “Politics is one of the reasons the system got itself to this point.”

School board members past and present, and parents who were interviewed by SACS, said they were not surprised probation was lifted, though some had expected better news than Elgart delivered.

He announced that DeKalb was moving to a status of “accredited warned.” It’s further from the precipice than probation but a couple of steps removed from perfection. In between is a milder status called “accredited on advisement,” a place that other districts such as the esteemed Cobb County have visited in recent years. That’s also where DeKalb was a year ago, when Elgart called a press conference to announce the drop to probation, a step away from accreditation loss.

That conjured images of Clayton County, which in 2008 became the first school district in four decades to lose accreditation under SACS. Students fled and the tax base tumbled as the value of real estate eroded. DeKalb residents and civic leaders were alarmed, and so was the governor. Deal tapped a relatively new law that allows him to unseat school boards in districts on probation. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the governor’s move after a legal challenge by one of the removed board members.

On Tuesday, Deal took the SACS announcement as an opportunity to praise the school board members he appointed. It was a measure of vindication for a Republican governor who’d faced criticism from parents, voters and the NAACP for wading into a thorny local matter in a Democratic stronghold. He strode into the local school board meeting Tuesday — an unusual visit for a governor who rarely appears at even state school board meetings — and said, “You have shown my actions and my confidence in you to be well-placed.”

“Yes, they’ve given me the best validation I could possibly receive,” Deal said later. “I don’t claim credit for the validation because it was in their hands to show that they could work together. And they have done so.”

Success in DeKalb gives Deal a bipartisan talking point on the campaign trail. DeKalb is also the home of his Democratic rival, state Sen. Jason Carter. In a statement, Carter didn’t mention Deal and instead praised only DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond, who is a longtime Democratic leader with experience in state politics, and school board members who were “able to put our politics aside.”

Carter’s colleague, Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, was more blunt. He slammed Deal for appearing at the Stone Mountain meeting and trying “to turn this announcement into a campaign stop.”

But politics has played a role throughout. The school board fiasco has already become a launching pad for one deposed member, Nancy Jester, who is now seeking the state superintendent’s job. And the upcoming school board elections, which could feature comeback bids by one or more of the ousted board members, may inject another dose of politics.

Politics is what one of the deposed board members said the whole SACS review process has been about. Former board chairman Eugene Walker, who fought his removal to the state supreme court, said SACS is allied with superintendents and seems to want only “docile” board members who won’t question their decisions. He dismissed SACS’ “required actions” for DeKalb as vague and unmeasurable.

“They’re not trying to measure or improve anything,” he said. “They’re just being political and trying to stay on top, and saying things people want to hear.”

Walker said he isn’t running for re-election, but his former colleague on the board, Jesse “Jay” Cunningham, is. Cunningham said he agrees with SACS’ mandates to improve management policies and processes and to put more money into the classrooms, and said the current school board is merely building upon the foundation laid by the board on which he served.

Cunningham voted to hire Thurmond and also Thurmond’s predecessor, Cheryl Atkinson, who resigned midway through her contract. The decision to hire Atkinson had split the board. Cunningham said he learned a lesson he will carry to office if re-elected: Hiring the right superintendent, with a consensus, is crucial: “I learned that everybody has got to be on the same page.”

Allyson Gevertz, one of a handful of parents SACS interviewed while preparing its new accreditation review, said she was pleased that DeKalb was not granted full accreditation and that the agency was still watching. She also agreed with Elgart about the importance of the upcoming election. A co-president of the Emory Lavista Parent Council in north DeKalb, she has allied with parent leaders in the southern part of the county to bring attention to the school board elections “as the number one issue for 2014.”

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