What lies behind DeKalb's ire over schools

A fiery protest ignited this month when DeKalb County's school board gave its  superintendent a $15,000 raise. But the raise was just the spark, not the tinder.

The recession, stagnant wages and increased workloads have teachers and staff on edge. Operational changes and reports of wrongdoing, including test cheating and a state probe into the school system’s construction program, have caught community attention. And frustration still lingers over the introduction this year of new programs that include a student data system that lurched into use in August by unintentionally dropping students from class rolls, scrambling schedules and scuttling teachers’ grade books.

And more bad news is coming: System officials next week will unveil budget proposals for next year that include millions more in cuts.

"I don't have a particular issue with the superintendent's salary or the board, but it's the context," said Kim Gokce, president of the neighborhood association for HillsDale, near Cross Keys High School. "I'm sure that was not intentional. But when you're in that kind of high-profile position, those things matter."

There were also "too many changes all at one time,” said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators. The local teacher advocacy group represents more than half of DeKalb's 7,500 teachers and, for the past decade, often meets monthly with the system's superintendent to present members' views on various issues. "We can stop a lot of problems before they start by keeping that dialogue open," Schutten said. "But everybody's got to give a little bit."

During budget talks in 2008, school board members told Superintendent Crawford Lewis to reduce staff. Salaries and benefits made up 91 percent of the system's $894.1 million general operations budget. Lewis' goal was to reduce that to 87 percent, along with finding other cuts. In the meantime, the economy sagged.

That November, the DeKalb board approved more than $20 million in reductions, representing some of the biggest cuts to that point taken by a metro Atlanta system in the wake of the sour economy and state funding cuts. The measures included layoffs and permanent cuts in student busing, and it drew criticism from dozens of parents and employees at a board meeting that month. It set the tone for the next year.

Students who attended schools outside their neighborhoods -- about 5,600 of the district's 99,000 students, including those in magnet schools, charter schools and academic theme schools, as well as transfers from lower-performing campuses -- had to start catching their buses at centralized "hubs" instead of getting service almost door to door as had been the system's policy for decades.

The board voted to erase pay raises already approved for that school year. The raises, "step increases" based on employees' years of experience, were to take effect in January 2009. Central office administrators got hit with a 2 percent pay cut. Lewis later turned down a 4.2 percent raise that he was contractually entitled to, keeping him at $240,000.

That June, DeKalb eliminated 217 jobs, including 127 through layoffs. Teachers were not cut.

By February 2009, more was needed. Lewis said he would seek an additional $16 million in cuts for this current school year. Within two months, he proposed an $851.1 million general operations budget -- a reduction of almost 5 percent. It included no raises or step increases and reflected a decrease in salaries and benefits to 89 percent of the budget. Student lunches also rose in price.

The new budget assumed that DeKalb's property values would decline by at least 2 percent -- a sign of trouble in the local economy. (An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution later showed DeKalb would eventually lead the region in both total and median residential value decline, recording an aggregate loss in value of $1.8 billion.) And it reflected the hit by the state to DeKalb's gut, which since 2002 had cut almost $110 million in state money otherwise obligated to DeKalb because of so-called "austerity reductions." Those reductions started before the recession and have now gotten worse.

The new budget also found savings by increasing class sizes by two students, merging special education programs and cutting the number of management-level administrative coordinators from 11 to six. And it included an already approved one-day, unpaid furlough of all employees -- but no more layoffs.

But as system officials worked through the budget, other issues emerged.

In late 2008, at Lewis' direction, school system police officers and other employees began an internal review involving the office of chief operating officer Patricia Pope. They passed the results on to county authorities, who launched a criminal investigation into allegations of bid-rigging in DeKalb's school construction program. The investigation took a turn this month when DeKalb District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming questioned the school board's level of cooperation.

Last summer, a state audit found evidence that some 2008 test papers from four Georgia schools -- including Atherton Elementary in DeKalb -- contained an abnormal number of erasures in which wrong answers often were replaced by correct ones. Atherton's former principal and assistant principal, whom DeKalb officials quickly removed from their jobs, were two of 13 educators eventually sanctioned by the state.

Also last summer, at least 15 DeKalb schools got new principals in an annual leadership shake-up by Lewis. In each of the previous two years, it was eight, with Lewis saying he did not relish the disruption caused by the changes but that he wanted to respond quickly to performance issues, especially given the pressure of the annual federal reviews that schools face.

The system this school year also added America's Choice, a supplemental academic program that targets struggling students. The program includes scripted lesson plans and procedures, which some teachers find restricting. Teachers also still grumble about the systemwide launch in August of the student data system, called eSIS.

Then, two weeks ago, the board increased Lewis' annual salary to $255,000 and extended his contract to 2013. Lewis agreed to lock in that salary for three years, but it didn't help that he was quoted by the local CrossRoadsNews weekly newspaper as calling himself "bargain" for the board. His raise also came just weeks before system officials expect to unveil proposed cuts to make up an expected $56 million shortfall.

"I can see it from the teachers' perspective, and it's perfectly reasonable to feel frustration or anger," said board Chairman Tom Bowen, who called change "the new constant" in DeKalb as the system tries to improve. "As a board, we've done a good job telling the superintendent that we need to improve. But if there's a downside to what we haven't done as a board or as a system, it is to remind everyone why we're making these changes and why everything has been done. Communication would have tempered a lot of this."

Lewis, too, acknowledged an ongoing need to work on communication. He said he sometimes feels a need to be careful about what he says because many of these issues, including the budget, require a final say-so from the board. And while the eSIS got off to a rocky start, its operation has steadied, giving teachers, administrators and parents unprecedented access to students' academic data.

"Our primary focus every day is improving our instructional program and making sure all our kids are getting a quality education," he said. "I'm aware there have been distractions. You have a sagging economy. People are trying to care for their families. There's a lot at stake, and we recognize that."