DeKalb school board protects whistleblowers

The DeKalb County school board is implementing a whistleblower policy, which officials say is the first in the state to prevent retaliation against school employees who report wrongdoing.

In addition to the whistleblower policy,  the school board voted Tuesday to add or amend policies on purchasing, an employee code of ethics and staff conflict of interest. The policies are all designed to deter a full-scale investigation into the district’s accreditation.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools ordered DeKalb schools to answer seven questions by Sept. 11. The questions concern hiring practices, conflict of interest, training, nepotism, procurement policies, the superintendent search and other areas.

Interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson said the district is on target to meet that deadline.

“Based upon SACS’ letter, we reviewed these areas and found these were areas where our policies were non-existent, inadequate or failed to address violations,” board chairman Tom Bowen told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mark A. Elgart, SACS president and chief executive officer, said he has not seen the policies, but supports the district’s efforts to modify or establish needed policies. SACS will review the district’s responses and determine if a full investigation is needed.

Board member Eugene Walker said he asked for the whistleblower policy in April after employees complained of retaliation by former superintendent Crawford Lewis.

“A lot of people said we had a reign of terror in our school system,” Walker said. “I received a number of complaints from employees and they would not let me bring them forward because they feared reprisal.”

A grand jury indicted Lewis and former chief operating officer Patricia Reid, along with two others, in May on charges they ran a criminal enterprise at the school system. The four, who remain free on bond, have all pleaded not guilty.

“Mr. Walker’s allegations are absolutely false and we believe personally motivated against Dr. Lewis,” Lewis’ attorney Mike Brown said Tuesday. “Dr. Lewis did not do anything wrong and we will prove that at trial.”

The district attorney began investigating Lewis and Reid after a whistleblower came forward.

“That person did this school system a great favor, and the taxpayers of DeKalb County, a great favor, in coming forth at great personal risk,” board member H. Paul Womack said Tuesday.

Under the new policy, employees are encouraged to report any fraud, waste or any other forms of abuse without retaliation.

Board vice chairwoman Zepora Roberts, who has been accused of advocating for her two daughters that work in the school system, was the only member to vote against the policy.

The board also toughened its purchasing policy to require more board approval. The changes are in response to accusations that Reid and Lewis  signed off on contract changes without telling the board, and altering the way bids were awarded, Bowen said.

The board also passed policies that prohibit employees from selling books, catering services or any other goods or services to the district without board approval.

The policy change comes after two administrators were fired and two demoted this month after an AJC investigation found they sold to the district a total of almost $100,000 in books they had written. The book sales, which Bowen said violated state law, are now under review by the district attorney.

“This energy now to make sure we put all these safeguards in place is kind of a day late and a dollar short. We need to do this up front and hire people who can make sound decisions,” Walker said. “I can see us doing now what we should have done a long time ago and that was to ask the right questions.”