Politician-school superintendent leads district past probation

Days after his appointment as superintendent of one of Georgia’s largest, and most troubled, school districts, Michael Thurmond waded into an angry crowd that was demanding answers.

The meeting at an elementary school in northern DeKalb County last February came two months after the district’s accreditation had fallen precipitously. Thurmond had no experience as a public school administrator prior to his emergency appointment that month, but the former Georgia lawmaker and state labor commissioner did have political instincts. On that evening, he displayed a lion tamer’s composure.

“Parents were yelling in his face,” said Allyson Gevertz, an organizer of the event who was embarrassed by the behavior and said she’d never seen one of her crowds that “riled up.” Thurmond smiled, answered questions as best he could and promised to follow up, and did, said Gevertz.

By spring, the next time he spoke at one of her events, the atmosphere was “calm” and in September, in a third engagement, it was almost boring.“He’s been rebuilding trust slowly but surely,” said Gevertz, co-president of the Emory LaVista Parent Council, an umbrella group over several north side schools. She added though, with more than a hint of caution: “I would not say everything is fine. He has a long way to go.”

Thurmond was hired out of private law practice by a desperate school board that had just negotiated the departure of then-Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson following a devastating review from a regional accreditation organization and amidst a crushing financial deficit. His name was on a list that included a university leader and a former Atlanta mayor, said Jesse “Jay” Cunningham, Jr., a former school board member from that time.

Thurmond stood out because of his leadership experience, his “political understanding” and his legal expertise. Thurmond had the skills to deal with the politics of accreditation and with the district’s outsized legal bills, Cunningham said. And, unlike the others on the list, he was both interested and available.

“We needed somebody that week,” Cunningham said.

After a year in office, Thurmond is reveling in some notable achievements. Last spring, he parted ways with the finance chief whom Atkinson had hired, and announced that he’d unearthed millions of dollars in overlooked revenue, including unclaimed federal funds and other income sitting in untapped accounts. The discovery erased the deficit, averted major cutbacks and even allowed a budget increase, with a reduction in teacher furloughs. Last fall, he negotiated the settlement of a costly lawsuit with a major construction contractor that had cost taxpayers at least $18 million since 2007. And last month, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools took DeKalb off accreditation probation.

Some dismiss the fiscal turnaround as an accounting flourish and criticize the settlement with the district’s former construction manager, Heery International, Inc. DeKalb will get $7.5 million instead of the $100 million it sought in its lawsuit. Many are also still smarting from Thurmond’s opposition to a proposal that would have brought Druid Hills High School and its feeder schools under the authority of a new and independent charter school board. That frustration spread to other parts of DeKalb, in particular Dunwoody, that were hoping to create their own clusters.

The SACS success is hard to overlook, though. The private accreditation agency said Thurmond and the school board had addressed most of its concerns about governance policies and procedures. The spending on lawyers was down, infighting over resources had ceased, and the board was letting administrators do their jobs without micromanaging. The new accreditation outlook resonates with residents such as Eric Mintz, an epidemiologist who pays more attention to Druid Hills High where his daughter is a sophomore than to the broader machinations of this district of 99,000 students. “I was concerned with the probationary thing,” he said. “It seems like we’re going in a good direction.”

DeKalb is still far short of full accreditation, and Thurmond said restoring it remains his top priority. He said he understood from the start that the district had to earn trust and credibility, and that he still lacks both in significant swaths of the county. The longtime Democrat sought a powerful Republican ally in Gov. Nathan Deal. Though Deal reacted to the SACS probation decision by replacing most of the school board that hired Thurmond, he has become something of a teammate on the accreditation problem. He’s been willing to share a stage with Thurmond, speaking at a high school graduation last spring and addressing the school board when SACS lifted probation.

Thurmond, 61, has also been working the crowds, touring the county in “listening sessions,” starting with that raucous event organized by Gevertz at Oak Grove Elementary School, where the faces that confronted him were mostly white. At the root of SACS’ concerns when it placed DeKalb on probation were the deep race and class divisions between north and south DeKalb. The antagonisms drove a ruthless regional competition for resources and a toxic management culture driven by fear, SACS found, and led to political infighting and financial mismanagement.

Thurmond, who is black and lives in DeKalb, said he had crossed racial chasms before, starting at Clarke Central High School near Athens when he was elected co-president — with a white teen — of the student council soon after integration. It was a revelation to him when both black and white hands clapped after a speech he gave at an assembly his senior year. “I figured out, heck, I can be president of both groups,” he said. He went on to become a lawyer and, after several tries, a black state representative in a largely white district. In the early 1990s, Gov. Zell Miller appointed him to lead the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services and, in the late 1990s, he won statewide election to the cabinet level position of commissioner over the Department of Labor, which he would later steer through the Great Recession.

One of the most important qualities he’s cultivated is “the art of listening,” Thurmond said. He said he runs the school district with teams, giving members equal votes on big decisions and encouraging open debate. He said he addressed the fear among administrators when he arrived with a simple strategy: “Not firing someone who disagrees.”

He is still dealing with the fallout from the school board’s close decision last fall to follow his recommendation and reject the Druid Hills charter petition. That denial has fueled a movement to change the state constitution and let new cities like Dunwoody carve out their own school districts.

Robert Wittenstein, a leader in that movement, said Thurmond appears to be honest and earnest but is merely the most recent of a long succession of superintendents who have tried, and failed, to change DeKalb’s trajectory. “He’s going to try to fix the broken things, but in the end we’re still going to have the same failing public school system we’ve had for years,” said Wittenstein, who attended elementary school in DeKalb and sent his two sons through the system. “‘We hope he succeeds, but the truth of the matter is, the problems are just bigger than he is.”

Thurmond said the charter proposal would have drained money from the district at-large, undoing his financial advances. He said he wants to lay a foundation for his successors to build upon, starting with a solid budget. But he doesn’t have much time. He’s worked well with the school board installed by Deal, but an election in May could bring new players and a new dynamic. His contract, with a $275,000 a year salary, expires in June 2015, and he said he is a “transitional” superintendent and will not seek an extension even though he loves the job — and the break from the kind of politics to which he is accustomed.

“Politics is a mean profession. It’s clawing and scratching every single day. It’s power for power’s sake. But this,” he said, “is about children.”

Clearly, though, Thurmond isn’t done with politics. He said Friday that Democratic leaders had asked him to run for state school superintendent this year and that he’s actually considering “the offer” and will have an answer for them Monday.

In the past, he’s joked about the allure of one of the world’s oldest professions.

“You know, there’s only one cure for political ambitions,” he said last month, pausing for the punch line: “formaldehyde.”

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