Rejection of charter school proposal reflects DeKalb divisions


The DeKalb County school board’s 5-4 vote Monday on the petition for a Druid Hills Charter Cluster broke down mostly along geographic and racial lines. Most of the support for the defeated petition came from board members in the northernmost districts.

Those in favor: John Coleman, Thad Mayfield, Jim McMahan and Marshall Orson.

Those opposed: David Campbell, Karen Carter, Michael Erwin, Melvin Johnson and Joyce Morley.

If any clarity emerged from this week’s messy debate about charter schools in DeKalb County, it was that the regional divisions that delivered the school system to the brink of accreditation loss still persist.

Across Georgia, parents have expressed frustration with public schools, with many demanding alternatives to the old bureaucracies and teaching methods. In DeKalb, that yearning manifested in a petition to separate a group of public schools from the central office and put them under private charter management.

On Monday, though, after a protracted and sometimes angry discussion, the school board split largely along geographic and racial lines in rejecting the request. The next day, the spurned parents and teachers accused the district of a “lack of transparency and fair dealing,” and hearkened to the district’s troubled past with accreditation.

Last year, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed DeKalb on probation, accusing board members of prioritizing the interests of “their” election districts above those of the system as a whole. That in turn prompted Gov. Nathan Deal to replace most of the board.

The pique on display Monday probably did not reach the level of “abhorrent behavior” and “yelling” that SACS cited in its assessment of the old board, and the new board hasn’t been accused of micromanagement and deficit spending, which were among SACS’ other big criticisms last year.

But the petitioners included this angry slap in a statement Tuesday about the school administration’s handling of their Druid Hills Charter Cluster proposal and the school board’s 5-4 vote against it: The district’s reaction, they wrote, “will demonstrate plainly a continued challenge with basic governance at the DeKalb board level that is counter to the accrediting guidelines from SACS.”

They also predicted that the outcome would encourage separation movements. Some in DeKalb advocate a constitutional amendment that would allow new cities to create their own school systems. There is also talk of annexing Druid Hills into neighboring Atlanta.

SACS will be issuing an update in December on DeKalb’s accreditation status. Asked if Monday’s meeting might affect the agency’s thinking, the organization’s leader, Mark Elgart, responded that the decision would be based on the board’s work “over a period of time, not just one meeting or one issue.” He said SACS recognized “the emotional nature of the debate” and added, perhaps ominously, that the agency “will continue to monitor this issue.”

All five votes against the petition were cast by black school board members, most of whom represent the southern part of the county. All but one of the four votes in favor were cast by white board members who represent the northernmost districts.

Marney Mayo, a parent and charter school advocate who has endured countless hours watching school board meetings, witnessed the proceedings Monday night. This school board and administration performed “better” than the leaders in place a year ago, she said. “But they’re still a group that reflects a system of widely divergent viewpoints.”

DeKalb is Georgia’s third-largest school district, with 99,000 students. Whites are a distinct minority and are more numerous in schools to the north. The district, a destination for international refugees, is also home to immigrants from across the globe who speak scores of languages.

Though Druid Hills, near Emory University, is known for its stately old mansions, the schools in the proposed cluster contain a lot of diversity. The cluster comprised Druid Hills High and Middle schools, and their five feeder elementary schools, Avondale Estates, Briar Vista, Fernbank, Laurel Ridge and McLendon. The leaders of the petition noted that their charter mandated the success of all the schools, so parents from successful schools would have a motivation to help out those that are struggling.

Cheryl Crawford has three children at Druid Hills High and was among the scores of “devastated” petition supporters who left after the four-hour meeting ended around 11 p.m.

The school serves her daughters well with its International Baccalaureate and advanced placement programs, she said, but it could do better for students in general education courses. “I want more being done for them,” she said.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Democrat who represents the Druid Hills area, characterized the petition as a “legitimate, positive chance for parents to engage, and the school system is not interested in their engagement.”

But Eugene Walker, the former school board chairman who was removed by Gov. Deal, said the petitioners displayed “arrogance and presumptuousness” with their assertion that they could do things better for their “section” of DeKalb. “They need to help us make the whole system better, not one section,” he said.