Thurmond helped DeKalb schools through dysfunction

The parent stepped close to DeKalb County Superintendent Michael Thurmond, her voice growing louder with each word.

Much was wrong with the district, Thurmond recalled her saying at a meeting he had set up with parents, teachers and others in February 2013. She asked, what would he do to make sure her children didn’t fall casualty to the dysfunction?

He was stepping into the district's top job as it dealt with a $14 million deficit, waning staff morale and the potential loss of accreditation after his predecessor's abrupt departure.

Thurmond recalled the community meetings as pivotal to his role as fixer for the district’s ills. He had no experience working in or leading schools, but he and others say his lack of a background in education was just what gave him the chance to turn the district around.

“Michael Thurmond did exactly what needed to be done,” said Allyson Gevertz, the parent of two students in DeKalb County Schools.

“The whole county was in crisis. The publicity was so negative. I think the board was strategic in choosing someone who was a politician and who was good with spin.

“It made a huge difference.”

His lack of an education background led many to object to his selection, saying he knew little that would help the district. Knowing his limitations, Thurmond said he surrounded himself with people able to build up the district while he worked to balance the budget and restore order to the dysfunctional management structure. It was so bad that Gov. Nathan Deal suspended six school board members and appointed replacements shortly after Thurmond stepped in the door.

Under Thurmond’s watch, graduation rates rose five points from 57 percent in 2013 to 62 percent in 2014. The $14 million deficit is now an $80 million surplus he’ll hand over to R. Stephen Green, who starts as superintendent in July.

He worked with the central office staff on a plan to increase the general minimum wage for the district to $10.25, guaranteeing some employees raises of up to 40 percent in the 2015-2016 school budget. Teachers, principals and other staff members will receive raises of up to 4 percent, after receiving just one raise in the past seven years — 1 percent across the board last year.

Last week, the school board approved a move to re-institute a retirement system for its employees.

Thurmond — a former legislator and state labor commissioner, newspaper owner and author — said he was attracted to the job because of the challenges facing the district, as well as the change of scenery the job presented.

Gevertz credited Thurmond with balancing the district’s budget and changing the way outsiders looked at the district.

Thurmond went into the community and talked to parents, teachers and others to grasp the problems from an outsider’s viewpoint. They complained of issues such as low morale, late buses and mismanagement throughout the district.

“People were livid,” he said. “Everywhere I went, people were in my face. But I knew I had to do it. I had to listen to what people were saying.”

The district’s accreditation was hanging in the balance.

“If we had lost accreditation, all bets were off,” Thurmond said.

Melvin Johnson, chairman of the DeKalb County Board of Education, said Thurmond was the right person for the district at a time when adjustments were needed.

Thurmond was practical and politically savvy. “He understood the political culture and set out to change the culture in a political manner. In changing the culture, he did an excellent job in communicating the assets of the county versus the negatives,” Johnson said.

“We still have problems,” Thurmond said, “but nothing compared to what we had at the beginning.”

Ernest Brown, whose four children went to DeKalb County Schools, said Thurmond will be seen as a fixer who got finances and bad management under control to establish stability for the floundering district and allow someone whose strengths are in education to pick up the baton.

“Did he address academics a lot?” Brown said. “Probably not. But there was a lot of back-office work that he got in order.”

Thurmond has been on leave of absence from Atlanta law firm Butler, Wooten, Cheeley and Peak, which held his spot until his work in DeKalb County was complete. Though it was different from any job he has held, Thurmond said he cherishes the time because of the impact on nearly 100,000 students.

“I’m a better person now than I was Feb. 8, 2013,” Thurmond said. “I spent 35, 40 years in politics. From a very young man, I spent time with my eyes firmly fixed on the next election, even when I won. Here in DeKalb, I’ve been granted the privilege of focusing on the next generation.

“That’s so much more rewarding to me.”