Why the DeKalb County school board may be toast, despite Michael Thurmond

I once referred to Michael Thurmond as one of the most cautious men in Georgia politics. Retirement has changed him.

Thurmond, the former state labor commissioner, left campaigning for a law office after his gentlemanly, 2010 run against U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

This son of an illiterate Clarke County share-cropper has a reputation for both affability and deliberation. Thurmond and the word “surprise” had never been friends – until one day last week, when the Democrat walked out of an executive session of the DeKalb County school board.

It was sort of like catching your preacher at a nickel slot machine.

Thurmond is now interim superintendent of the flailing, 99,000-student DeKalb County school system, named only days prior to a final hearing before the state Board of Education – which must decide whether to remove all nine elected members of the DeKalb County school board. The same people who just hired Thurmond.

Heck, make that a $50 slot machine.

A former House member himself, Thurmond toured the state Capitol this week and met with state lawmakers from DeKalb County. Thurmond informed them that he would make the final argument before the state school board next Thursday.

And no, he wasn’t intimidated by the fact that he has no background in education.

“The key to being a great leader is to know what you don’t know, and then find someone who does. I enjoy being around people that are smarter than me,” Thurmond said. “Everyone who works around me – you have to know something I don’t know. Otherwise, I don’t need you.”

The case against the DeKalb school board is mind-boggling, the tale of a 15,000-employee bureaucracy descending into personal, dysfunctional fiefdoms.

“There was frequent mention of board members who make special requests of district office staff, bus drivers and teachers, making threats to fire them if they do not comply with their individual requests,” according to one paragraph contained in a report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – which has threatened to yank the system’s accreditation if something is not done. Quickly.

As much as they admire him, even Thurmond’s friends suspect that he has joined a lost cause. “He has a likeability quality that is incredibly strong and important for the current situation,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who came to the Legislature with Thurmond in 1986. “It will help with the morale of professionals. It will help the school system turn the corner and begin to earn some positive press.”

On his second day on the job, Thurmond crawled under a school bus to greet a pair of inspectors. His personal touch is that good — but it may not be enough. “I don’t think Mike Thurmond will help the parents in my district feel better about the school board. I don’t think Mike Thurmond will be able to control the school board’s actions,” Oliver added.

She suspects the state Board of Education will recommend removal of the DeKalb school board. “They understand that we cannot have a status quo for the next 18 months of the existing school board. But it will be their decision,” Oliver said. “And then, more significantly, the decision will come down to one person.”

That would be Gov. Nathan Deal.

Last month, the governor showed that – when given a chance – he’d rather not interfere in local politics. Deal refused to suspend Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill, who was returned to office despite multiple indictments for malfeasance in office during a previous term.

But the stakes are much higher in DeKalb. Students – precious though each one is – aren’t the only concern. In a school system this size, degraded diplomas are a billion-dollar issue.

“It’s about what it would do to economic development in this state,” said state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody. “You do not want to be on the front page of the New York Times with an article saying the third largest school system in metro Atlanta has lost its accreditation.”

“The biggest issue for economic development anywhere now is education,” said Millar. “This would be devastating, not only for the region, but for the state.”

No doubt the governor is concerned about the kids, Millar said. “But he is more concerned, probably, with the economic consequences of not taking any action at all. I would hope the state board feels that way as well. Because SACS has run out of patience.”

On the other hand, the Dunwoody lawmaker wishes Thurmond all the luck in the world. ‘I think his intentions are very, very good. He’s a very nice man. He was considered a pretty good labor commissioner,” Millar said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.