Panel recommends special grand jury investigation into DeKalb schools

Detailing a laundry list of concerns, particularly the process that led to the hiring of DeKalb County School’s superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, a grand jury is calling for a special investigation of the school board.

After their November-December presentments, the DeKalb County Superior Court grand jury has recommended a special grand jury look into the county school board, because, “It is clear that the school system remains top-heavy and suffers from a perception of conflicts of interest and waste.”

Among the more damaging allegations, the grand jury blamed the board for taking nearly two years to find a permanent replacement for former superintendent Crawford Lewis, who is now under indictment for fraud.

“While we have no issue with the work and effectiveness of the interim superintendent, not having a permanent superintendent in place for an extended period while the system was in turmoil and obviously needed significant improvements leads to questions about the school board’s effectiveness in meeting their sworn duty,” the report read.

The grand jury also noted that several aspects of the selection process were leaked to the media. Lillie Cox, the one-time front-runner to lead the schools, dropped out of contention for the job after contract negotiations stalled and details of her potential agreement were made public.

After withdrawing, Cox quickly accepted a similar position in a North Carolina school district.

Approximately 95,000 students are enrolled in DeKalb public schools, the third largest system in the state.

DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James told Channel 2 Action News that the report, was "explosive" and "something that we have to take very seriously."

It would be up to James' office to form a special grand jury to probe the school system.

"Whether or not I'm going to request that the superior court judges grant us the ability to have a special grand jury or we use our normal investigative power is something that I'm going to be reviewing over the next couple of weeks," he said.

The panel also noted that:

  • The school board had too much influence in the hiring and retention of personnel, which created a culture where "friends and family" are benefiting.
  • Several school officials connected with DeKalb County bands were engaged in outside activities that might have had an impact on their duties at work. Band activity at all schools has been suspended in the wake of the hazing death of a Florida A&M University drum major, who had graduated from Southwest DeKalb High. Investigators are looking at connections between the college and high school.
  • The school system might have improperly campaigned taxpayers to approve the renewal of a penny sales tax. By law, systems are only allowed to provide information about the so-called SPLOST, but not lobby for or against it. In November, voters gave DeKalb County schools, where former superintendent Lewis is facing fraud charges related to previous SPLOST money, $475 million for school construction, including $144 million to replace seven elementary schools.

For their report, the grand jury interviewed Atkinson, former interim superintendent Ramona Tyson and school board chairman Thomas Bowen. District spokesman Walter Woods said the system is prepared to cooperate fully with any investigation.

"Beyond that, we haven’t see the report yet," Woods said.