In the just-completed criminal trial of the former DeKalb County Schools’ chief operating officer, the school district sounded like a Peyton Place where threats of blackmail shielded wrongdoers and where the ex-superintendent dallied in an illicit affair with a subordinate.
At the recent school board hearing on a charter cluster proposal, DeKalb schools came across as a protectorate of the status quo, peddling promises that more of the same will somehow produce improved results.
What DeKalb doesn’t seem is a place where parents are thrilled to send their kids, children get a high-quality education and grownups make smart decisions on behalf of the nearly 100,000 students in their care.
The DeKalb schools leadership has to recognize this loss of public confidence and trust. It also has to face that the trend in Georgia, evidenced in both legislative and local activism, is to bring decision-making to a lower level and that demands letting go of some control.
For example, while legitimate reasons exist for the school board to question the proposed Druid Hills Charter Cluster petition, one is not that DeKalb’s central office offers a better blueprint for reform. Several of the schools in the proposed cluster are underperforming, and teachers complain that their efforts to help their students are undermined by micromanagement and lack of classroom support.
In their denial of the cluster, DeKalb focused on the tax dollars the district would lose, but the formula is spelled out in the law and schools are entitled to the same funds they now draw. The more compelling point of debate should be whether the proposal will lead to more effective teaching and learning.
The state’s third-largest system, DeKalb spends a lot of money on its 137 schools. While there are some high performers in the mix, DeKalb can’t boast the results of neighboring Gwinnett, which spends less per pupil. (State Department of Education 2013 data shows DeKalb spends $8,821 per pupil, while Gwinnett spends $7,727.)
In the past 12 years, the focus in DeKalb shifted from students to adults. The system has confronted more than its share of crises, including five different school superintendents, accreditation woes and a feuding school board.
Current Superintendent Michael Thurmond inherited a damaged district 10 months ago, battered by the abrupt departure of one superintendent and the indictment of another. In February, the governor wielded a new state law to remove six school board members after an accrediting agency placed DeKalb on probation.
Two weeks ago, a unanimous state Supreme Court upheld the law. A key statement in the ruling was: “When the conduct of a board threatens the school system with an imminent loss of its accreditation, it matters not to the public or the children of the school system whether it is the fault of a single board member, the fault of every board member, or the fault of no one in particular, just an unfortunate result of well-meaning individuals who cannot or do not work well together.”
To extend the court’s reasoning, it also doesn’t matter to the children whether their schools are operated by a central office of well-meaning managers or by a governing board of impassioned parents.
What matters to parents and kids — and what ought to matter most to the school board and the DeKalb leadership — is whether those schools succeed.
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