Pressure on to fill DeKalb school board

Wanted: Six new DeKalb County school board members willing to untangle the needs of one of the state’s most troubled school districts. Must be politically savvy, knowledgeable about finances and educational policy and palatable to Republican leaders. The pay is $18,000. No election required.

Now that a federal judge has cleared the way for Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint new members to DeKalb’s beleaguered school board, the focus shifts to a nominating committee that will take on the delicate, and urgent, task of selecting the six without alienating antsy parents and teachers.

Since last week, more than 150 applications have poured in from all corners of DeKalb — plus some from far beyond. The application deadline is Wednesday, and the committee will meet Friday to begin discussing the candidates.

“We’re hearing from quality leaders from all over DeKalb County — community activists, concerned parents and people who don’t even live in the county or the state,” said Kenneth Mason, a Southern Regional Education Board staffer who chairs the panel. “People are passionate about their children, and they should be.”

Mason and his four fellow hand-picked panel members must wrestle with racial, geographic and political concerns as they decide who will govern Georgia’s third-largest school system. They will feel pressure to act quickly since last week’s suspension of two-thirds of the DeKalb board left the district all but paralyzed.

Until a new board is in place, there will be no big decisions about finances or policy. Interim superintendent Michael Thurmond said he can get by for a “short” while without a functioning school board, but said he’s hopeful for a resolution “sooner rather than later.”

Besides the time pressure, Deal’s panel will face intense scrutiny as they balance the concerns of a Republican governor with the interests of one of Georgia’s bluest counties.

The panel’s members are tight-lipped about the identity of potential candidates, but several names have emerged. One is Marney Mayo, a stay-at-home mother of two who helped start an international school and has a background in chemical engineering. She said she felt compelled to apply after a decade watching the school board’s struggles.

“I understand what good governance needs to look like,” said Mayo, who is seeking a seat representing sprawling north DeKalb. “And I would be very unhappy with myself if I saw put in that position people who could not do as good a job operating from a global perspective as I could.”

Mason said the panel will try to hash out their vetting process on Thursday, and has yet to discuss what qualifications it will consider, such as college degrees or a specialty in education policy. The candidates must also meet standards set out by state law, such as residency in the district and citizenship. The race and experience of candidates may factor into the decision as well, he said.

“We’re taking everything into consideration. That’s why we’re not rushing to vet,” said Mason. “We’re looking at the geographic and demographic breakdown of DeKalb. We want to get this right, because we care about the district’s future.”

Deal’s decision to suspend the six board members came more than two months after an accrediting agency placed the district on probation and released a report documenting mismanagement, nepotism and incessant infighting among the board’s nine members. The governor spared the three members who took office in January.

Jilted board members sought to block the governor from taking action, but a federal judge granted Deal a victory Monday, declining to intervene. The former board chair, Eugene Walker, has vowed to continue the legal fight, but it could be months until the Georgia Supreme Court addresses the case.

The panel’s picks for new board members are sure to be under scrutiny. Democrats have long dominated politics in DeKalb, which boasts some of the state’s wealthiest black communities, and the party now holds all countywide posts. Of the six school positions up for grabs, only one is from a majority-white district — a largely conservative area rooted in Dunwoody.

DeKalb Democrats call for an “inclusive” process that considers the county’s racial and demographic makeup, and are quick to note that any appointed board member will still have to face the voters if they seek election.

“They should be looking for individuals who understand the community and who, if appointed, will be viewed by the public as competent, capable and committed to student achievement,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “It is also critically important that this process be inclusive and not driven by politics or cronyism.”

Pressing issues await whomever Deal appoints, chief among them a struggle regain full accreditation. The new members will also face tough decisions finances for a district reeling from a nearly $15 million deficit and poorly-performing schools.

“What the teachers are looking for is some kind of fiscal responsibility because there’ve been no raises in five years,” said Dave Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators.

Schutten said the crisis has awakened complacent parents. He doubts that, when the elections come next year, they’ll re-elect the same kind of board members who led DeKalb to the brink.

“People are going to pay far more attention to the caliber of people who are running and their character,” he said.

Fed up parents want the governor to tap candidates who have time, energy and the financial acumen to turn the district around. Kirste Young, the president of the PTSA at Redan High School, said her requirements are simple: “Be effective.”

She’s still skeptical of the odds for success. It took years for DeKalb’s problems to boil over, and it could take years to solve them. She fears parents will become impatient in the absence of quick improvements, feeding more unrest.

“It’s not going to be an overnight fix,” said Young, who is considering sending two of her four children to better school districts out-of-state. “You get animosity again, and the cycle repeats itself.”

Staff writer Nancy Badertscher contributed to this report.

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