Legislators to help DeKalb schools with accreditation

State legislators are stepping in to help DeKalb County schools salvage the district’s accreditation.

On Thursday, the DeKalb delegation announced the formation of the DeKalb school board legislative review committee to assist the district with responding to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

SACS ordered DeKalb schools to formally answer seven questions by Sept. 11. The questions center around hiring practices, training, conflict of interest, nepotism, procurement policies, the superintendent search and other areas.

Based on those responses, SACS will determine if there are questions about whether DeKalb schools meet the standards for accreditation and whether it is necessary to warrant a full-scale investigation.

“Community support and involvement is an important part of any district’s accreditation. The involvement of DeKalb leaders can help the DeKalb County School System identify and move forward with improvement efforts,” said Mark Elgart, SACS' president and chief executive officer.

The legislative committee also wants to help in the search for a new superintendent.

The committee, which will be chaired by state Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) and state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), will hold its first meeting Sept. 9 -- two days before the SACS response is due.

“I’m a proud graduate of the DeKalb County school district and I’m very concerned about all of the problems,” Oliver told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “A SACS investigation is a serious matter.”

SACS began asking questions in May when a grand jury indicted former superintendent Crawford Lewis, former chief operating officer Patricia Reid and two others.

The committee will also work with the school board to meet the requirements of Senate Bill 84, which requires every district in Georgia to pass an ethics policy, Oliver said.

"The SACS investigation seems to be in part focusing on board behavior,” Oliver said. “We’re looking to see if they set up some type of independent [ethics] review.”

Two administrators were fired and two demoted this month after an AJC investigation found they sold a total of almost $100,000 in books they had written to the district. The AJC also reported that school board member Jay Cunningham’s restaurants sold more than $22,000 worth of food to the district since he joined the board.

Next week, the DeKalb board is scheduled to vote on drafts of its SACS responses, along with new policies on governing employee ethics, whistleblowers and conflict of interest.

Board chairman Tom Bowen said the board is confident accreditation will not be in jeopardy.

“The district is in communication with SACS and is already following a detailed timeline that includes steps to ensure transparency, including a public vote on the responses to SACS,” he said.

Bowen said he had not spoken with any of the legislators. “While we appreciate the offer of assistance from the legislators and look forward to working with them, it is extremely disappointing that the Senate Press Office would issue a release prior to any communication with the board and with incorrect facts regarding the district attorney's investigation,” he said.

The legislators’ news release said “several board members and former superintendent Crawford Lewis were indicted on charges involving conflicts of interest.”

No school board members were indicted.

The Senate Press Office issued an apology and correction Thursday night.

Sen. Jones did not return two phone calls nor an e-mail.