Progress or paper changes? DeKalb school chief pushes on

DeKalb school superintendent Steve Green is going into his third year of leadership in the formerly problematic district. Green touts his accomplishments and says he intends to keep moving forward, but some question the pace of his work and some of his changes. Photo by Christopher Quinn/AJC

DeKalb school superintendent Steve Green is going into his third year of leadership in the formerly problematic district. Green touts his accomplishments and says he intends to keep moving forward, but some question the pace of his work and some of his changes. Photo by Christopher Quinn/AJC

Two years ago, DeKalb hired its fifth superintendent since 2010 to fix systematic problems such as falling test scores, teacher recruitment, high administrative salaries and transparency.

While Superintendent Steve Green has taken steps this year that include a newly redesigned curriculum and removing nine principals from schools needing better student performance, DeKalb parents and educators worry that there's not a lot of measurable change under his leadership.

Worries are amplified as Green enters his third year, the average lifespan for superintendents these days. In DeKalb, Georgia’s third-largest school system, it’s even shorter — with an average of less than two years.

Green said he was pleased with the progress he’s made in the past two years, including regaining full accreditation, which was recently renewed for five years. Green has continued where predecessor Michael Thurmond left off by raising teacher salaries to be more competitive with neighboring school systems. He also counts the new curriculum and voter approval of the extending the education sales tax in 2016 among his victories.

“I’d like to think the district is in far better shape … than we were two years ago,” Green said. “And we’re much better than we were last year in many areas. Now, does that mean that we’ve reached what I’ve envisioned for DeKalb County? By no means.”

Cross Keys High School teacher Rebekah Morris said some changes have brought renewed hope. "But it's been difficult to connect what (Green) says he wants … and any measurable outcomes," Morris said.

Some worries about the district are rooted in its history.

DeKalb Schools was $14 million in debt and on the verge of losing accreditation four years ago when Gov. Nathan Deal intervened, removing six school board members amid mismanagement concerns. The governor’s action followed an accrediting agency’s scathing report citing a decade of “poor, ineffective governance” that included careless spending as academic performance suffered.

Since 2015, district costs have risen but overall academic performance has not. In fact, administrative salaries, which critics cited during the district’s accreditation woes, are up nearly 20 percent.

Green attributed some of the costs to a revamp of the administration that was one of his first moves as DeKalb superintendent. That reorganization plan included a more decentralized central office, which he said divides the district by region and designates staffers from key departments to provide better oversight in faster time. According to organizational charts, the number of top-tiered administrators has increased under Green’s leadership with the addition of five directors and two chief officers. Directors make at least $90,000 annually, and chief officers $168,158.

The communications department budget is up nearly 300 percent, with a staff that now includes a chief communications and community relations officer, a director of strategic communications and marketing, and three other staffers. Department officials insist a district the size of DeKalb was severely understaffed at its previous size. In an email, the district lists an improved customer service experience and enhanced digital communications outreach among its successes.

Yet communication seems to be the focus of many of the complaints about the district’s operation.

Plans for a mandatory convocation on the last planning day before school begins are being met with criticism from educators in and around the district for not taking teachers' time into account.

The district also announced plans for a public relations campaign designed to allow the district to "counter mainstream perceptions and attitudes that don't accurately reflect the work of students and staff."

Superintendent Steve Green leads one of Georgia’s largest, most diverse school systems. Kent Johnson/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Kent Johnson

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Credit: Kent Johnson

When then-Chief Human Capital Management Officer Leo Brown disappeared for most of the winter, district officials ignored queries about his whereabouts. In late February, Brown himself released a statement citing health challenges and announced that he was moving to another position in the district’s operations division. Brown retained his $175,000 salary even though his new job is rated on the district pay scale for a salary only up to $80,000. District officials still have not answered questions about Brown’s demotion and why he was allowed to keep his salary.

The district also came under fire in early June for not making its proposed budget available to the public until midway through the approval process. On June 13, during the last public hearing on the budget, a resident complained that the budget appeared online only after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on its omission.

Some have hinted the budget echoes some of the district’s past problems.

The Georgia Federation of Teachers has requested salary information for district staffers at or above the director level, in addition to pay increases for teachers, bus drivers and maintenance workers and others.

“This has got to stop,” Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers said of the administrative cost increases. “We implore the district leadership to look at the past. These things have been addressed before. It appears to be getting out of hand again.”

Green came to DeKalb from Kansas City in May 2015 as the sole finalist for the district’s top job.

Thurmond, his predecessor, had been a temporary fixer to immediately address negative perceptions regarding finances and mismanagement. But the district now needed a fixer for teacher recruitment and student performance.

At his public swearing-in ceremony on July 2, 2015, Green said he looked forward to doing what needed to be done to ensure "students are career and college ready as they come forth in the community."

Leadership changes came quickly, including the demotion of the human resources director to a position in the district’s athletics office. Green also hired three former Kansas City Public Schools employees for key administrative roles, including Brown, who had been working at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta before joining the district.

Those changes at the top have not brought vast improvements in the classroom. Instead, statistics on student achievement are a mixed bag, mostly indicating decline.

During the 2015-2016 school year, his first in charge, 80 DeKalb schools saw declines in the College and Career Ready Performance Index. That's about 60 percent of the district's schools. The state's report card grades schools on several factors, including student performance on standardized state tests. Scores for 2016-17 will come out in the fall.

Green said recent principal reassignments, which drew about 100 educators to the May school board meeting to support affected principals, was mostly data-driven, as test scores give clear indicators on how a school performed over time, and should assist with improving CCRPI and other state measurements. The state's "Beating the Odds" goals, which factor in demographic, socioeconomic, ethnicity and mobility figures when judging school achievement, was also used in the accounting.

The district continues to struggle recruiting teachers.

Officials said recently that the district needs to hire about 440 teachers to be fully staffed at the start of the 2017-2018 school year next month. The district currently employs more than 100 uncertified teachers thanks to a waivers process that allows some flexibility from state regulations. Even with the uncertified teachers, the district has 20 percent more teacher vacancies than a year ago.

“Whatever is happening is not making a different in the experience of teachers,” said Morris, who did not renew her contract with the school district. “There’s no true examining of authentic learning. There’s catchy fads, making sure we call it ‘rigor’ instead of “’depth of learning,’ that make it feel like there’s something going on in the classroom.”

She does credit Green for immediately jumping in to fix overcrowding in the Cross Keys cluster of schools, which serve a largely Hispanic population along the Buford Highway corridor. Green sent some students to nearby schools while permanent solutions were being worked out. The district announced plans at its June 12 meeting to purchase land to build a new elementary school set to open in 2020.

Still, Morris contrasts Green with Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who came to a district reeling from a cheating scandal that resulted in criminal charges for several administrators and teachers. Carstarphen has vigorously led school consolidation efforts and hired outside organizations to improve student performance.

“When I watch APS, even if I don’t agree with everything Meria Carstarphen is doing, you see a sense of urgency, and a clear purpose and clear direction, and support from the school board,” Morris said.

Green has said his goal since arriving has been to realign the district so that student achievement returns to the top of its priority list.

But how much difference can one person, even in the top job, make?

A Brookings Institute study said a transformative superintendent may be more myth than man. “School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?” says superintendents have little influence on student achievement, and that parents should be more concerned about the teacher assigned to their child, as well as the school they attend.

Ernest Brown, whose children all graduated from DeKalb County schools, agrees.

“You have to ask yourself what Dr. Green really has control over?” said Brown, who has a role on several district committees. “At the end of the day, what is the superintendent really doing? He’s looking over a budget and trying to minimize outcries (for various concerns). What decision can you make that impacts what’s going on in that kindergarten classroom? There’s so many variables you don’t have control over.”

The accreditation report when the district was put on probation cited a “culture of interference and ignoring the autonomy of the staff,” but DeKalb’s current school board gives Green plenty of leeway in decision making.

Melvin Johnson, the board chairman, said it’s Green’s job to make administrative decisions. Green was hired by the board, Johnson said, which should signify confidence in his decision-making. Most board members have said they feel the same way.

However, board member Joyce Morley said she believes not enough thought and research goes into many of Green’s big decisions, including removing principals or some of the top administrators shortly after his arrival. The decisions, she said, are often as hasty as the one district made in hiring Green himself.

“One of the downfalls we had is we brought (Green) in and there was no (districtwide) assessment,” she said. “There was no transition plan. Now, he’s making these decisions on his own.”

Green remains optimistic about his work, and the district’s future.

“I never led anyone to believe this would be easy,” Green said. “We’re not talking about simply getting from point A to B. Our journey is point A, to B, to C and beyond. We’re in this for the long haul.”