For DeKalb Schools, 2017 was about student achievement, hiring woes

The DeKalb County School District saw student test scores and its overall graduation rate increase this year, but that progress was accompanied by concerns about record keeping and hiring.

Leo Brown was hired in January 2016 by Superintendent Steve Green as the district’s human resources chief, to begin working to address employee hiring and retention issues Green inherited when he came to the district six months earlier.

By December, he’d disappeared.

The district addressed his absence in late February by announcing he’d report to a new position in another department in early March. In the press release announcing the demotion, Brown mentioned dealing with health challenges, though no record of a leave of absence exists.

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In the meantime, the district still had more than 100 teacher vacancies well into the school year, even though it had begun hiring uncertified teachers. The school district became a Strategic Waiver School System in 2016, allowing flexibility and exemption from some state rules. Many of the uncertified teachers had expertise in STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and math) which, outside of special education, was the district’s highest need.

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A record-keeping problem surfaced during an investigation into school bus accident data that determined districts didn't use the data to address shortcomings. DeKalb Schools officials admitted they were not keeping accurate records of accidents.

In her exit interview, in August 2016, the employee over data submission admitted to officials that she had not been sending complete information to the state. When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered the snafu four months later, nothing had been done to address it.

The district has since retroactively reported more than 1,000 over a five-year period beginning in 2012.

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DeKalb’s efforts to hire administrators have been costly. Documents received this spring showed the district paid a search firm about $140,000 to find candidates for more than a dozen jobs, including a principal position. But officials at Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates take credit for placing candidates in just two of those positions.

When the search was discussed in early 2016, Green said at the time that the search firm’s role was an advisory one. While they found some candidates, and vetted others, the district would make the final decision. Green chose three people he worked with at his previous school district for positions under the search firm’s charge. District officials said other posts also went to candidates suggested by other administrative staffers.

In the fall, the district dealt with several hires that seemed to sneak through the established background-checking process, including Sandra Meeks-Speller, who was hired late in the summer to teach at Chamblee Middle School. Meeks-Speller had been terminated from a school district in Toledo, Ohio, after an investigation there determined she physically assaulted students. Green acknowledged the teacher was hired because her Georgia teaching license was verified, admitting that often in the process, his human resources staff doesn't perform simple tasks such as verifying work history and reaching out to references.

In December, district officials owned up to another blunder after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution inquired whether Diane Clark was working for the district as a substitute teacher. Clark had been forced to retire a year earlier after students said she threatened them with deportation following Donald Trump's presidential election victory.