Lembeck increases scores, brings attention to Marietta schools

The Marietta City Schools in Cobb County is, by many accounts, successful both academically and financially.

In seven years, the district has significantly increased the number of students exceeding standards on state exams. It was one of the first in the state to become a charter system, allowing for more fiscal and academic flexibility. Amid austerity cuts, Marietta avoided layoffs and furlough days this year, unlike most Georgia districts.

The school system’s success has been noted across the state, culminating in its superintendent, Emily Lembeck, being named the state’s superintendent of the year.

Last month, Marietta’s school board gave her a glowing review and extended her contract to 2015 with a 2 percent pay raise.

“She’s an outstanding superintendent,” said board member Irene Berens, who has served on the board for 12 years. “She came through our system and knows it really well. She has faced multiple challenges as all superintendents have. But she seems to always come up with creative and well thought-out ideas to meet those challenges.”

There are more challenges ahead for Lembeck, including increasing the graduation rate, renewing the district’s charter system status for another five years, and possibly seeking the voters’ approval of a new tax referendum next spring.

The New York native started in the district in 1991. She has served as a teacher, principal and associate superintendent of curriculum and operations. Lembeck was hired as the superintendent in 2005.

At the time, barely a third of students in grades 3-8 exceeded standards on state exams.

“My biggest challenge for the school district was the perception,” Lembeck said. “A lot of people felt we couldn’t meet the needs of all the students.”

Soon after she took office, Lembeck worked with several legislators to create a special status called “charter system” for school districts. Charter systems are given broad discretion in how to use state funds as long as the district agrees to improve test scores using a combination of innovative techniques.

“Decisions are best made close to where the actions and issues are,” Lembeck said.

As a charter system, the district has created special magnets schools, a sixth-grade academy and small learning communities at the high school that have lead to large academic gains.

Last year, 51 percent of Marietta students exceeded state standards.

Parents in the district said they appreciate Lembeck’s engagement with the community.

“I think [Lembeck] has done a great job,” said Angie Pfeuffer, who has two children in the district. “I’ve been very happy with both my kids’ experiences. When I have a question or something needs to be done differently, I’ve found her to be very responsive.”

Lembeck faced criticism earlier this year when she asked voters for a $7 million bond to expand Marietta High School to include a 750-seat multi-purpose auditorium and classroom space for arts programs.

“At the time, I felt this wasn’t the time to be building something that wasn’t a need,” said board member Brett Bittner, who campaigned against the proposal. “It wasn’t a need; it was a want. I think, overall, the fiscal management for the school system has been good but it was poor timing considering the economic climate.”

The bond was approved with a little more than half the votes. The projects are set to be completed next school year.

Lembeck will soon ask the state to extend its charter status for another five years. And Marietta’s and Cobb County’s school boards will soon consider whether to put on a March ballot a special tax referendum (SPLOST) proposal that could bring $53.3 million to Marietta over the next five years to be spent on several construction projects.

Board members have asked Lembeck to work in the coming years on improving the high school’s graduation rate, which is 56 percent, according to recent state data.

Lembeck said she’s up for the challenge.

“Public education has to be a shared responsibility and focus,” she said. “Students have to compete globally. Morally, ethically and professionally, we’re obligated to exceed the standards.”

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