Parents stunned as DeKalb school board bars public

The DeKalb County school board approved a closed-door process Wednesday for responding to allegations of mismanagement.

The public will not get to see discussions about a letter last week from accrediting agency AdvancEd that accused members of the school board of overstepping their authority in some areas, such as hiring, while failing to exercise oversight over finances and other key responsibilities.

“The goal is to be as open and transparent as possible,” school board Chairman Eugene Walker said before leading the vote for a process that leaves the public outside the door.

Parent Michelle Penkava sat dumbfounded in the audience. “They just held a public meeting to say this is not going to be a public process,” she said.

Board members said they were merely acting out of respect for AdvancEd and its subsidiary, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

“I don’t think SACS wants this in the newspaper before it goes to SACS,” board member Paul Womack said.

But Mark Elgart, president and chief executive officer of AdvancEd, said in a telephone interview after the hastily called DeKalb meeting that “no such courtesy is necessary or required.” He said the process for responding was up to DeKalb.

System spokesman Jeff Dickerson defended the process, which was recommended by Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson. He said the school system effectively opened the process by holding Wednesday’s meeting in public. The board could have met in a private executive session or merely passed around drafts of their response among themselves, he said.

Georgia law allows few exceptions to the state Open Meetings Act. Officials can meet in executive session to discuss legal matters, land acquisitions and personnel matters. It’s unclear whether a letter containing allegations about mismanagement would fit any of those exclusions.

Parent Molly Bardsley said she was “frankly a little surprised that this is all going to go on behind closed doors, because part of the problem SACS is addressing is what goes on behind closed doors.”

The three-page letter, received Aug. 29 and addressed to Atkinson, gave the superintendent 30 calendar days to respond. It expressed “significant concern” about whether DeKalb was meeting “at least” two of five accreditation standards.

Elgart said last week that SACS had received at least 50 complaints from parents, school staffers and others about matters including board members pressuring principals to take certain actions and also exerting influence over personnel decisions. Board members are not supposed to get involved in such administrative decisions. Meanwhile, the board is accused of failing to approve accurate budgets, and of wasting money on expenses such as legal fees.

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

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