DeKalb superintendent: Changes being made

Most of DeKalb County Schools’ fixes are done or in the works, superintendent Cheryl Atkinson told the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools this week. She wrote responding to complaints from the accrediting agency that the school system and its board had mismanaged its oversight and financial responsibilities.

The school system is “on advisement,” a step below full accreditation, and SACS has been pressuring officials for changes since at least 2010.

In a letter sent to DeKalb school officials Aug. 28 the agency said it had received dozens of complaints from a broad spectrum of people in Dekalb — parents, public officials and school staffers — who alleged everything from mishandling of the budget to undue board influence in hiring.

The complaints, said Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, the parent company of SACS, were enough to give the agency “significant concern” that the school system may not be meeting two of five accreditation standards. In her response to SACS dated Sept. 12 Atkinson said, in effect, not to worry.

She outlined 16 initiatives she’s taken since becoming superintendent less than a year ago to address budgetary, staffing and other issues that predate her tenure on the job. Fixes that are either under way or complete, she wrote, include: a still in-the-works forensic audit of the district’s financial records by the outside accounting firm KPMG; restructuring the central office; delivering a new curriculum in line with new common core standards, and establishing an internal legal affairs division to manage and reduce legal costs.

“We are working daily to make huge strides to sustain continuous improvement and to provide the best education possible for the students of DeKalb County,” Atkinson wrote. “Progress is ongoing and we have not stopped working on any concerns. Some issues may take longer than others to resolve, but we are continuously striving to achieve excellence on all SACS standards.”

As of Thursday three school board members, Nancy Jester, Pam Speaks and Don McChesney, had posted their own responses, on web sites, to the to SACS inquiry and Atkinson’s letter. Board members had reviewed and made revision recommendations to her letter, said board chairman Eugene Walker.

All generally endorsed and praised Atkinson’s letter, each with a few misgivings. Chairman Walker said in an interview, “If anyone can show where we violated the law or board policy, I’d like to see it. But I haven’t seen that. I hope this closes the matter and we continue to work with SACS as we have always done.”

McChesney, on the other hand, invited a more thorough investigation of the district. “State auditors and past superintendents, it appears, have definitely not informed this board or some past boards on issues with our accounting procedures,” he wrote on his web site. “I want to know why. My suggestion is that we openly invite SACS in and ask them what we need to do to assist them in getting our system so that it eventually will function at the highest level.”

DeKalb parent Ernest Brown said he agreed with Atkinson’s response, which he added was carefully worded because, in effect, it was the superintendent responding to complaints about her bosses, the school board. “I’m not sure SACS expected to get a response from Atkinson critical of her bosses,” he said. “I’d like to see a little more specificity from SACS about the details of the complaints.”

SACS could follow up with an investigation. Elgart could not be reached for comment.

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