DeKalb school board can’t find a majority for new chairman

They tried and tried again Wednesday, but the nine members of the DeKalb County school board still couldn’t find five votes to elect a new leader.

Their failure to muster a majority behind a choice for school board chairman in 2013 means former board chair Eugene Walker retains the title, at least for the time being. Walker got four votes against two other nominees and four again in a runoff when two board members abstained.

An accreditation agency has placed the system on probation due in part to school board fractiousness. Their lukewarm endorsement of their leader didn’t give teachers’ representative David Schutten much cause for hope.cher

“If they can’t even come together to elect a board chair, how can they come together to get off probation,” said Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators. He was among the handful of observers able to attend the specially-called morning meeting.

It was at least the fourth attempt to hold a vote, with prior exercises cancelled for one reason or another, most recently, on Monday, for failure to properly advertise the meeting.

By getting the most votes of any candidate Wednesday, Walker remains chairman, but can be replaced in the next 30 days if a majority of the members present at a given meeting agree on another candidate. The board did select a vice chairman though: Jim McMahan, one of three new board members, got five votes.

Next, came a grim update on finances.

For fiscal year 2014, which begins in July, Chief Finance Office Michael Perrone projects a further decline in revenues coupled with rising costs for expenses such as health care. He told the school board they can anticipate receiving $18 million less in state and local revenue with a $6 million increase in fixed costs. The current budget is $730 million.

Half a decade ago, it would have taken a couple minutes to trim that kind of expense from a comparatively plump budget, Perrone told them. “But after compounding cuts for five or six years, that twenty four million is going to be very difficult.”

There was some good news: the deep cutbacks approved last summer put the system on track for a $10 million surplus at the end of the current fiscal year. But, Perrone said that will need to be applied to last year’s budget deficit of $16 million.

It’s illegal for local governments, including school systems, to run a deficit without a repayment plan. Any surplus, Perrone said, must go toward paying down that debt.

After the public meeting, school board members retired to a private room for another in a series of closed sessions. The topic: “legal and personnel matters.”

A couple hours later they emerged, and Walker said he had no response to rumors that the board was planning to replace Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson. On Wednesday, the school system responded to an open records request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for any agreement terminating Atkinson’s contract by saying no such documents existed.

“We want the public to know, but we don’t want the public to know prematurely,” Walker said.

On Monday, former Georgia labor commissioner Michael Thurmond emerged from a similar closed session and said the board asked about his leadership philosophy and that the words “interim” and “superintendent” were used. Atkinson has declined to address the rumors.

At the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, the board called another executive session for 3 p.m. Thursday.