05/23/2013 – NCA

Northlake Community Alliance


Public Questions Summary

  • Will the Kittredge magnet program be moved to Avondale?
  • Will you let school councils decide who their principal is and will you let principals hire their teachers rather than the central office?
  • Are you going to take after school funds into the general fund to balance the budget?
  • When can we expect to see class size decrease?
  • When will the renovation begin at Henderson Middle School?
  • What is being done about the low high school graduation rate?
  • Can you highlight the top 10 traditional high schools with the highest graduation rates?
  • Are teacher salaries a prime priority?
  • Has the board considered ramping up the current law department to include more attorneys?
  • Should individual high schools pursue individual, separate accreditation from the Georgia School Board Association?
  • The Georgia State study a couple of years ago found that there were too many middle managers at the district office compared to Gwinnett and Cobb Counties.  Do you have plans to implement any of the study’s findings?
  • What is the status of the proposed cell towers for school property?
  • You’re 1/3 of the way through your 90 day plan.  What deliverables are complete and which deliverables keep you awake at night?
  • How long do appointed board members hold office and will they need to be elected to remain on the board?
  • What is DeKalb doing to train effective principals.

Meeting Transcript
Thank you Van [Van Johnson, Vice Chairman of NCA]. I appreciate everybody being here. I have been blessed with attending graduations this week. So I’ve had 4 graduations. 3 on official duty and 1 as a parent. Just for the record, I have 2 kids at Henderson now. Because my youngest has graduated from Sagamore and they had a heck of a graduation function this afternoon, that’s after I left ??? today. I got to spend time with them.
Also, about the school system, my oldest daughter. She’s in middle school. Finals are the last week, so she took 2,3 tests yesterday and 4 today. They’re all posted online with their scores. That’s of this afternoon. I’m amazed. She came to me and said “Dad. You owe me some money. I made A-A-A-A-A and 1 B. Pay up.” No, it can’t be. She said “look at the computer. They already posted it.” So anyway, to your [Thurmond] leadership, I attribute. My point is that the job is getting done in this critical time in the school system. And I can see it firsthand. And experiencing it as a parent, I don’t consider myself a politician. I consider myself a parent and educational advocate. And a taxpayer who is almost hawkish about our tax dollars. So, that’s my perspective.
My father told me a long time ago, “Son, it’s much better to be ‘interested’ than ‘interesting’.” And I took that took heart. Which told me listen to people. So, what I’m going to do, the part of this evening that I feel is the most pertinent for me is pretty much the Q&A between the community here. So, I’ll wait and talk then and let y’all have the floor and ask questions specifically about what y’all would like to hear answers to.
Thank you for having me here. I am resident of Sagamore Hills. I’ve been in DeKalb for 20 years right down the street and I have the shortest commute here. K.C. [Karen Carter] you? Alright, I won’t divulge where she lives, but she’s closer than I am. But, we’re right here and we’ve got vested interests. I’m concerned about the roads and I was attending the meeting with Kathy and Jeff Raider regarding the Oak Grove intersection a few weeks ago. I thought the citizens were critical of the school board, that’s a daunting task to explain to everybody how the intersection is going to change, but I got it. And I understood and I think it’s for the best. Everybody’ll understand, just like you said. Nobody understands at first, but when it’s done, everybody comes and thanks you. So, I’ll be the first to thank you.
So, that’s it. I just want to let you know I’m here and I’m not going anywhere and I look forward to the Q&A portion of the presentation. So, thanks for your time.
Karen Carter [4:09]
Good evening. I am Karen Will Carter. I sat here listening to Jimmy and I’m thinking, “Wow, I’ve become more like my recently deceased husband. I’m warning you I’ve never met a mic I didn’t like. But, what’s more important are meeting my neighbors and the people who trust me and my colleagues to do the right thing for our students and our community.
Unlike Jim, I did not run for this position. But, when the Governor expressed a need for citizens to step up and make a difference. Those that understood governance, leadership, team work and the ability to listen, I thought I could do that. And if not now, when? And if not me, who? So, I went through the process because I’m an educator at heart. Since I was 8 years old, I’ve taught all my cousins. I’m the oldest of 13 grandchildren. So, we always had school at my house because I also had cool toys. So I could incentivize my cousins to learn because I’d let them play with my toys. And that was their privilege. But I also had a life experience that looks a lot like the old DeKalb and the new DeKalb. I lived in a rural suburban community. I lived in an urban community. I had the best quality education ??? city public schools. And ??? county trend schools. I knew that I had had the best and that’s what I wanted for our students. So, when the opportunity came, I said yes. Because I wanted to serve with 8 other people who could get along and look at what was critical. Student achievement, student excellence, teacher affirmation, strengthening our resources, transportation, buses on time in place with bus drivers who are capable and ready to serve. And I’m here to tell you, in the 2 months that we have been serving, we have reorganized ourselves as a board. We’ve established board norms, how we’re going to communicate with one another. How we’re going to engage the faculty and the students and the staffs of the school system. How we’re going to respond to you all so you get the best work from board members doing what we’re supposed to do. Which is setting policy. Watching the budget and making sure those things are in place. And ??? to the Superintendent the excellent skill sets that he has in leading the administrative team to do the work in the school ??. You’ve already heard from his introduction, that he could turn around 2 systems in state government. I’m honored to be serving with him and with our board, like Jim. I could go on forever, but what’s more important is sitting down and listening and helping you find solutions or providing you the answers for the questions you have about how we’re going to strengthen this DeKalb County School System.
I’m honored to be here. I thank you for allowing me the privilege of serving you and serving our children this year.
Michael Thurmond [7:34]
Thank you, Tom. Good evening. First of all, like I always do, I’d like to thank the citizens of this county for giving me this wonderful opportunity to serve as Interim Superintendent here. Thank our Vice Chair, Mr. McMahan, Dr. Carter, for their leadership and support on a day to day basis as we work to improve the DeKalb School District so that we can provide educational opportunities for all of our children. My state senator’s here. My own personal state senator. Senator ??? is here as well as other elected officials, ???.
The good news is, I believe without any doubt what so ever, that our school district is moving in the right direction. And I say it from a position … and, by the way, today is a very special day for me. This was the last day of school. I said earlier, I’m still standing. So, that’s a good thing. I also see Ms. Nancy Jester to my right, board member. It’s been an interesting year. It’s been an exhilarating experience. And I tell folks, they come up to me as my friend Karen did, they say “ohhh, our condolences. We know that you’re in a very difficult situation. And we feel sorry for you.” At first it didn’t bother me. Then I began to get a little bit agitated, because you know what? I am having the time of my life. I really am. And let me tell you why. There are very few jobs in DeKalb that when you’re surrounded by 99,000 young people. And no matter what you may have heard or may have not heard, we have some of the very best and brightest young people. And not just in Georgia, but anywhere in this nation.
And good news. You all read the report that US News and World report did some reporting evaluating various high schools in America and in the state of Georgia. I’m happy to report that 3 of the top 15 performing high schools in Georgia are located right here in DeKalb County. No credit to me, but credit to the administrators and teachers, students and more importantly the parents that support those students. Ranked number 2 in the state of Georgia by US News and World Report, DeKalb School of the Arts. Number 6, Chamblee Charter High School. And number 14, Arabia Mountain. Best high schools in the state and among the best in the nation.
Much good news. Also I have to report that during my brief tenure, I’ve had the opportunity to re-asses the school calendar. As you know, the school board voted to rethink the balanced calendar for this year. We went back to the traditional calendar to make sure that will give us time to further evaluate whether or not that is the most appropriate way to carry on the business of the school district. And, we’ll revisit that during the year for another vote.
We also, and this might be too far down in the weeds, but we have many new ??? teachers about our reading programs in our elementary schools. So, we’re back engaged our teachers and our principals and the program Success For All. Based on their input and their decision we decided to eliminate that program for the following year.
I’ve had the opportunity to travel all around this county and talk to stakeholders. And I was speaking to ??? earlier and we were laughing about … and some of the venues were not as pleasant as this one. But, you know what? And everyone deserves to be heard. And, more importantly, it is our responsibility to listen to the concerns, the hopes, the dreams of each and every person in this county … was interested in a stakeholder in this district.
Last week, the SACS monitors returned to DeKalb County. As you know, the DeKalb School District was placed on probation in December of last year. That’s one step away from losing accreditation. And that was a very, very serious decision that was made. I’m happy to report, as I said from the first day you all gave me the opportunity to serve. And now I have further evidence, that DeKalb School District will not lose accreditation. It’s not going to happen.
Not too long ago, Dr. Mark Elgart, who leads AdvancED/SACS, our accrediting agency said that it is not likely … unlikely that we will lose accreditation. That I am very hopeful, that in 2 or 3 weeks, that will receive an objective, unbiased report from SACS. I am hopeful that they will have evaluated and documented the progress that has been made in the recent months and they will be able to share with every single stakeholder where we stand. And, more importantly, where we are going. I believe without a doubt that you will read in this report that we have made significant progress and beginning to lift ???.
Final thing is this. The board set parameters for the FY ’14 budget. Based on those parameters, we have brought forth a budget that is being now heard and evaluated at the district and across the county regarding our FY ’14 budget. One of the things … one of the parameters was number 1, focus resources back into the classroom, classroom instruction and supporting academic achievement. That was the number one priority. Number 2, of course, was to balance the budget. Number 3 was eliminate excessive attorney’s fees. I’m happy to report that in FY ’14 … this current fiscal year, we’re on track to spend about $10 million dollars on attorney’s fees which is roughly 3 times higher than any other average among metro Atlanta. The good news is that in FY ’14, we are cutting $6 million dollars from that budget. I’m an attorney. Friends, lawyers, I know. The point is I know we can buy cheaper lawyers than the ones we have now, right. And consequently, by the way, many of the lawyers who represent us now have already come back to the table and said, “You know what Mike? I think we can provide a more reasonable service based on the budget projections”. That’s a $6 million dollar savings right off the top. We’re also cutting $13 million dollars from central office operations. $5 million of that are positions … real positions titles … coming out of the budget. And these dollars are being redirected into the classrooms.
Number 1, we propose to eliminate 1 furlough day. That doesn’t sound like a lot. But, for the last 4 or 5 years we’ve been adding furlough day after furlough day after furlough day. But now we’re moving in a different direction. Good news, moving in the right direction, got a long way to go to get to where we need to be. But the journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step. That step is making sure we provide a quality education for all the children of DeKalb.
I’m also excited about the growing cohesiveness and support we are beginning to realize and earn from stakeholders throughout DeKalb. It’s not universal. And, by the way, we’re not gonna always agree on everything. That’s not really the answer. The point is, we need to be focused on a common agenda and try to work together. Work as citizens, as stakeholders, as parents, as students to help get the DeKalb district back on track and moving in the right direction. And we are doing that. I am proud of the work that we are doing. I am proud of the direction that the board has provided. And I just guarantee you when the SACS report … don’t listen to anything I’m telling you. Don’t take my word on anything. You know, I’m biased. I believe we are moving in the right direction. SACS has been one of our harshest critics. This is the agency who just 3 months ago was ready to rip accreditation from the district. I encourage you, whatever your opinions are, withhold them and read that report. And I think it will show you without any doubt that we’re making progress and moving in the right direction.
Thank you.
Van Johnson [16:45]
The school board’s 90 day plan, there are copies of here in the auditorium, I think on the back table. If you didn’t pick one up, they are available to you. They’ll tell you in a good bit of detail the specifics of what they … goals and objectives are and actions that are going to be taken beyond what the Superintendent stated here.
So, if you have questions. I have several cards here. If you would, let me ask one or two of you guys from NCA to walk up and down the aisles and pick up these cards. I want to recognize Lynn ??, former CEO, her husband phil.
Q: [17:30]
The first question, and I’m not sure who to direct these to, but we will … direct them to whoever can answer them I suppose. The first is, can the county not have automatic, random location reassignments or transfers for our teachers? PS. DeKalb special ed services are great. So, can the county not have automatic, random location reassignments or transfers for our teachers?
Did we get a name for who provided the question?
Van Johnson:
There was no name on here. Let me ask if at the end of the meeting, you can see Mr. Thurmond and he can answer that question.
Second question is, will the Kittredge magnet program be moved to Avondale? Is that move going to be temporary or permanent?
There are no plans that I’m aware of. Can you provide me with more detail?
Van Johnson:
Whoever asked the question, can you hold your hand up?
Jim McMahan:
I think, from my perspective, knowing that we had considered centralizing the magnet program a year or two ago. That might be the origination of this question. We’ve kept things status quo with all of our magnet schools and their individual locations. Kittredge, obviously. We’ve not reconsidered the centralization of it.
And the process we are going to follow moving forward is after the budget developed and approved in the month of June hopefully, by the end of our fiscal year. Then we’re going to start a strategic planning process, which is going to last for the rest of the year. And, that will guide the district for the next decade. And, it’s essentially stake holder input, community input. And, like I was saying, we’ll listen to the communities. What their needs are, their desires are, and see if we can adequately fullfil them. So, is that fair enough?
Van Johnson: [20:30]
Next question is, will you let school councils decide who their principal is and whether you let principals hire their teacher rather than the central office?
The board passed a new policy that reaffirmed the expectation, rights and opportunities, for school councils to serve in an advisory role to the hiring of principals. And it’s advisory primarily because many applications require a background check and other confidential information. To provide that information to school councils would violate state, local and sometimes even federal law. So, the statute, the policy as it is written down delegates to councils an advisory role. Ultimately, the only entity under state law that have the authority to actually hire is the board of education on the part of the recommendation from the Superintendent. That will not change.
The role of councils is very important in terms of knowing and getting to know applicants. More importantly have an advisory to the administration for who they think might be the best candidate.
Second question … part … teachers … teachers do have that authority, but ultimately they would rather be in this ??? … the ultimate hiring authority is the board of education for every employee including myself.
One of the things that’s interesting. It’s surprising to some, but not all. The board of education has one employee. That’s the superintendent. It’s the Superintendent’s responsibility to then select, hire, approve, train staff. And then once that’s done, he or she, in this case he, makes recommendations on the hiring of to the board but the board itself has one employee.
Van Johnson: [22:48]
Next question is, are you going to take after school funds into the general fund to balance the budget?
That’s interesting. I’m delighted that somebody asked the question. Let me give you a little bit of back ground. In doing and working on the FY ’14 budget, one of the things the board tasked me to do was to, number 1, ensure that the fiscal management and all our accountability was in place. But, what we were able to discover, there was really 2 accounts that amounted to $5.8 million dollars that apparently had not been documented. And was being maintained in some ways off the books. So, what I decided to do, in relation to maintaining transparency was take those dollars and place them on the books. As a public entity, there should be no fund or amount of dollars maintained and operated in a way that every citizen doesn’t have access to … to know about. That was my position. Now of course, no good deed goes unpunished. And so, as soon as we were able to share that with the stake holders, the question becomes, are you trying to appropriate our money. On our budget proposal, it’s designated as reserved for future appropriation. And I said at the budget hearing, I have no past, present or future intent or desire to use these monies in any way other than what was first provided. Which is 90% will go back to the schools and 10% will then be able to be used by the administration. But, rather than thanks Mike for being transparent and allowing us for knowing these monies exist, I then had a conspiracy to appropriate this money for purposes that I have no real understanding or need to do.
So, the answer is ‘No’. The bigger piece is, we need to know where every dollar is and what we know we need to share with the taxpayers of this county. And I was shocked to know there was funds with nearly $6 million dollars in it that was being operated outside the purview of the administration or oversight of the superintendent or the board and we’re not going to have dollars administered in that way under my administration.
Van Johnson: [25:29]
When can we expect to see class size decrease?
Jim McMahan:
I’ll take it since my kids are in classes. It comes down to allocation of resources. We are trying to, through the budget process over the next 6 weeks, we’re going to figure out where all the dollars are. Which Mike has done a great job so far finding an additional $20 something million dollars. We’re also going to look at, and Nancy’s always asked about her return on investment, on evaluations. How are programs working? So, we’re actually going to look into all of our expenditures on these case programs just like Mike said previously, Success For All. Gone. That’s a significant amount of money that can be re allocated into the classroom for living, human teachers. And that is a big focus and we’ve realized that to be able to adequately handle the 99,000 students we have, we need to put more teachers in the classroom. And, this is one of the ways, initially, that we can do that. It’s through a budget process and working hard to find every dollar to get back into the classroom.
Van Johnson: [27:05]
When will the renovation begin at Henderson Middle School? My son is a current student at Henderson Middle and would benefit from ADA improvements as he is in a wheelchair.
Mr Wilkins is back there. Did he leave? … Mr Wilkins is Chief of Operations, but he left just before this question.
He wrote the question. When I was on school council at Henderson, prior to running for the school board, we dealt with facilities issues. ADA was a big one. I don’t know who’s child it is, but the walkway up to the back of the school is ridiculous. So, I propose to use Stan’s video camera on a rainy day and go video the kids having to get up the back … to the back door … it’s ridiculous.
What I did suggest is that Henderson community create a construction committee and work with the capital improvements division of the school system. That’s been implemented. They’re meeting with the construction committee to have a dialogue about timeline, needs and the important solution for the renovation.
To answer your question, they’re in the design process right now. So, I don’t know what rising grade he’s in. I gotta rising 6th and 8th grader there. I doubt either of my kids will see the benefit of the renovation. They will see the benefit of the Lakeside renovation though. So, that’s just where it is. So, it’s a long process. Chamblee’s got probably another 6 months before their renovation’s completed. The design process started on that when we authorized the QSCAB bonds, like $58 million dollars. That was like 2 or 3 years ago. So, it’s about a 3 year process from beginning to end. That’s the best I got.
Van Johnson: [29:21]
What is being done about the low high school graduation rate?
Karen Carter:
One of the things that I think we’re real pleased with is that and part of our concern, is not just the low graduation rate, but working to extend completion for all students where they are in need. Last night I had the opportunity, with the Superintendent, to participate in the Elizabeth Andrews nontraditional school graduation. So, we have extended our services and our programs in those areas to make sure that we are reaching students who aren’t making regular process. Extending our services to them, extending their tutorial programs, their teacher resources to get them up to speed. And, if they’re not doing it in a way in which they are at risk for dropping out. We’re also looking at how to asses them and determining whether or not a program like the one at Elizabeth Andrews is the right program.
One of the other things as Jim already mentioned mentioned and alluded to is we have begun the planning process for our strategic plan. Something that’s going to move us 5 and 10 years out. So, we know that a part of the 90 day plan that the Superintendent purposed and we adopted as a board is student achievement has got to be number one. So, we are asking all of our stakeholders to be engaged. And, in particular, going down to the school house level to make sure that we are getting feedback from the teachers about the programs that do work, those that don’t work. Success For All reading, those go. And, so over the next 6 months, as a part of the priority that the strategic planning committee is adopting which I’m a part of, is making sure that the programs that we look at are for student achievement and catching the students who are falling in the gaps. Does that help?
Van Johnson: [31:21]
We just want to congratulate the students graduating in DeKalb county. Can you highlight the top 10 traditional high schools with the highest graduation rates?
Jim McMahan:
I don’t have the top 10. I was at Lakeside last night. At the Fox we had the highest number, actual number, of students who graduated. 388 students graduated last night. Mr. Reed, the principal, he was chalk full of numbers. It was his swan song, he’s retiring and heading off … given his 30 years’ service. You remember Mr. Reed? Yeah, well he was the principal at Sagamore before heading over to Lakeside. So, he had my kids. The number came up $4.5 million dollars in scholarships for this graduating class is what they received. It’s incredible. And, that is not inclusive of Hope either. So, that’s exclusive of Hope scholarships. That’s Lakeside. I was at Tucker graduation the night before. We had 307 graduates. The only reason I know this is I shook every one of ’ems hand and I think I have carpal tunnel today.
The diversity among the students. They don’t look like … me. It’s unbelievable. It’s not a black and white world anymore. It is international. And to see the products that, and think about this also. These kids who graduated this year. What they’ve been through in their high school career in this county. 3 Superintendents, 3 CFOs, Lakeside renovations, Tucker renovations, Chamblee’s gotta renovation going on right now, 3 boards. And still they achieve and set these high academic ??? It’s amazing. And this week has been a really fun part of being on the school board. It’s to … the celebration of achievement and it reinforces the fact of why I’m here is to help increase student achievement. Even though there’s great things going on, we can do better. So, I don’t have the top 10.
Nancy Jester: [34:00]
Jim, the highest is always the DeKalb School of the Arts, as far as the graduation rates. I don’t know about this year, but ’11-’12 it was DeKalb School of the Arts.
Talking about traditional schools that have a minimum of 300 graduates? Number 1 is Dunwoody. Number 2 – Lakeside. Number 3 was Stephenson. That had a least 300 graduates of the traditional high school.
Nancy Jester:
But that’s not the rate. Because they’re generally the middle of the pack with the rate of graduation.
Percentage rate … those … The state of Georgia just issued, this is for 2012 though, they don’t do it … it’s always a year lagging. For 2012, in terms of percentage, those 3 traditional high schools were … because we just did a press release …
Nancy Jester:
DeKalb School of the Arts was the highest.
But that’s a magnet school. She asked about traditional schools.
But if you’re going to talk about nontraditional, the paper reported, and I’m a DECA parent, Dekalb Early College Academy, we have a 94% graduation rate in DeKalb county. That’s the highest, period.
In the non-traditional. But the question, I thought, was traditional.
It was. But, if you’re going to talk about highest.
Nancy Jester:
This is just 2012. Because that’s what they just released.
We were proud that we were able to book and focus on the plus 300 sized schools. Because most of the time whether it’s DeKalb or even Gwinnett and Cobb, those high performing schools are not open enrollment schools.
Thurmond: [35:37]
Now, one of the questions was asked was about dropout rate. One of the most exciting things we are proposing that we’ve been working on, is the development of a career academy in DeKalb County. We visited Rockdale County. One reason, a significant reason young people drop out of high school, not because they’re not smart or intelligent, they’re just not interested in a 4 year or 2 year liberal arts education. One of the big challenges we face and a large percentage of our resources, are focused on helping our students prepare themselves for a liberal arts education. In fact, on a national average, only 20% of the graduates in america will actually graduate this year will actually graduate from a liberal arts institution. And so, what we have to do is create multiple pathways to success. So that young people, and by the way, as a former Labor Commissioner, I can tell you something. Those young men and women who are graduating with technical degrees from technical colleges, on average are earning more money than our graduates who are graduating with general liberal arts degrees from 2 and 4 year institutions. We have to create multiple pathways to success. And, help young people and parents recognize that if it’s a 2 year, 4 year liberal arts institution, great. But, it’s also just as important, and we are just as proud if you will enroll at Georgia Piedmont College. If you will get a technical degree and then be able to support yourself and your family through honest labor. That’s a success.
You should go out to Rockdale Career Academy. Right now we have $1 million dollars in the budget that will allow us to seed money to build one here in DeKalb. I’ve been in conversations with the Commissioner of the Department of Technical and Adult Education. They have in their budget, a grant to have $9 million set aside. They will be offering $3 million dollar grants to 3 districts who are interested in establishing a career academy. We will be one of the schools seeking the $3 million dollars to match the $1 million dollars we have. And I guarantee you we’re gonna see many, many more young people completing their high school careers. You go out to Rockdale Academy, they have EMTs and CNAs and law enforcement. Any and every … automobile technician. And one of the things that you have to understand is, there aren’t automobile mechanics any more. The average automobile technician with experience is earning 60 to 70 thousand dollars a year in some locations. And the reason is, if you have automobile trouble and you look under the hood of your car. If you’re like me, I recognize nothing that I see. You take the car in to get it fixed, it’s not a grease guy with a rag hanging out of his pocket. You have to hook it up to what … a computer. Then be able to manipulate it, use it and understand it. Create more pathways to success. We’re going to have more graduates. But, more importantly, we’re gonna have more income, tax producing citizens in our county and in our state.
Van Johnson: [38:51]
Stay right there. I think this one is for you too. Teacher salaries must be one of your priorities. Is this a prime priority?
Absolutely. And, actually, the furlough day is a way to increase teacher’s salaries. Because when you add a day back, you actually increase the amount of money they will receive in their salary. That’s our first step in a long, long journey to restore competitive teacher’s salaries in DeKalb County. I am excited about it. The one thing we had to do, in my mind, was to finance at least the elimination of one furlough day. That’s about $3 million dollars. But, think what I told you. We cut legal fees by what … $6 million. Half of that cut went to purchase 1 furlough day which will not just increase salaries for teachers, but for every employee except for those making over $80,000 dollars a year.
Van Johnson: [39:46]
Has the board considered ramping up the current law department to include more attorneys and other staff to better handle the needs of the system there by further cutting the outside council budget?
The board directed me to do whatever’s necessary to reduce, not just outside council fees, but all the ??? legal fees we are spending. We’re looking at the ??? aspect of the district in terms of how we provide legal representation over half of the district. Everything is on the table.
Even the Heery-Mitchell suit. One of the albatross around our neck has been the Heery-Mitchell suit. You all might be familiar with it. We have spent close to $6 million dollars on attorney’s fees to one of the major law firms. It went to then a contingency fee contract. But following that, we have now spent close to $13 million dollars in case cost. I will tell you, I was meeting today at 12 o’clock with representatives from that law firm. We’re gonna get this straightened out. And, we can’t invest that type of money in a lawsuit that really originated over a dispute of less than $500,000 dollars. It really did. It originated over a dispute that involved less than $500,000 dollars. And collectively, between attorney’s fees and the … the case expenses, we’re now close to $20 million dollars in. And, because of a clause in our retainer fee, we are now potentially responsible for some $30 million dollars in additional attorney’s fees if the case … if we attempt to walk away, settle the case without the consent of the law firm.
But, the good news is, I’m working on it. I’m working on it. And I hope to have something for the board sometime in the near future.
Van Johnson: [41:54]
Should individual high schools pursue individual, separate accreditation from the Georgia School Board Association?
Dr. Karen Carter
Thanks for that question. One of the things that’s important to us first and foremost is restoring full accreditation with SACS. As the Superintendent told you, don’t take his word for it, don’t take our word for it. Look out for that report. We, as board members, had to participate in that conversation and I believe that we’re on the right path.
We also want to make the opportunity available for the schools to determine how best, with feedback from all of our stake holders, how best to ensure that they are confident that their students will have what they need for accreditation. There is an ad hoc committee of board members who are looking at dual accreditation. We want to make a sound decision that is good for the entire system, not one school vs another school. We never want to pit our schools against one another or our students. We are one DeKalb County.
I happen to be district 8 at large. I live in district 4. Jim and I serve all of our districts and so our responsibility is to serve all of our schools. So, our sub ground is looking at how best to consider dual accreditation so that each and every school, if that’s appropriate, has the opportunity without it being a burden on any one individual school. It’s not on the table, it is being studied and we will get to a decision with that before there is a window of opportunity that closes for our students. Our priority is SACS accreditation, but we will not close the window on dual accreditation.
Van Johnson: [43:38]
Does the county school board help students to focus more on academics than spending too much time on internet social websites and texting with cell phones?
Dr. Karen Carter:
The answer is, ‘Yes’. Our commitment is bound and determined to help set policy for our administrative leadership team, instruction and curriculum. And I laugh because I teach college. And, at the college level, it’s in the syllabus, it’s in the school guide books, it’s in the hand books, it’s in the superintendent’s hands. But it really is our task as a community to remind our students that there are people that we want to be engaged and we want them to be able to handle conversation with the person next to ’em. So, to the extent that the board can continue to develop policy that’s going to give the Superintendent and his staff the legs that they need to help students not text, use social media appropriately, I promise … this one you can take to the bank tonight. I promise you that we’re going to do that.
And, we have to do that for a couple of other reasons. There are federal laws that have been mandated by the department of education that tend to issues about misconduct with electronic tools, whether it’s a computer, or cell phone and texting. And, so, you will find that as those policies continue to be emanated from the department of education at the federal level, that the state is also going to push that down to the county and then we’re going to respond appropriately.
We want a safe guard our students and how they use those tools. But we also want to make sure that they don’t use them, not just for social bad stuff, but for inappropriate behavior, bullying. You know, our state is taking the lead. We have got great partnerships at the state level that you … I’m sure you’ve seen some of the commercials that are out there. And I know our county also takes that very seriously. And we know that today, students use technology as an anonymous way to bully. So, you can rest assured that those are policies that we are going to continue to be looking at and evaluating and revising. As technology evolves, we have to keep evolving in that area as well.
Van Johnson: [45:53]
Does the district have the right systems and tools in place now to adequately track and report all financial and personnel transactions?
Michael Thurmond:
That was one of the areas that SACS really cited that we needed to improve as well as state audits and some private ones as well. We’re working to improve that capacity within the district. I mentioned to you the problem that we really discovered in terms of accounts not on books. The good news is we have Dr. Michael Bell. Some of you know, he’s very familiar with owners and taxpayers and those that have been involved in government here in DeKalb County, now serving as our CFO. He’s experienced. He’s lived in DeKalb County for 10 years or so. He worked as CFO for the city of Atlanta. A similar position with Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson airport. We’re very lucky to have him. He’s a professor at Georgia State University, served in the US Navy. We are really getting our house in order. And, now we have a great leader that the board will confirm, I hope, on June 3rd as the permanent CFO for DeKalb County.
Van Johnson: [47:07]
This one may be for you as well. The Georgia State study a couple of years ago found that there were too many middle managers at the district office compared to Gwinnett and Cobb Counties. Do you have plans to implement any of the study’s findings?
They were implemented. And, they’ve been implemented in this budget. $5 million of the nearly $18 million that we are cutting is salaries and staff at the state office. I want to say this too. Everything starts at home. These men and women, Dr. Carter, Jim can testify. I’ve not brought one person in, as Superintendent, since I’ve been here. I’ve not hired one person from the outside. The success, progress we’ve made by the way reported to SACS, … the same people who were in place last October, November, December. I submit to you, the problem was not in the rank and file staff. It was a leadership problem. It was a vision problem. And that is what we had to address. That’s why this board is working so hard and not always agreeing on everything, but agreeing that the priority has to be improving academic achievement and career readiness for our students. That has changed. And that’s one of the things I pointed out to SACS. No new people. I haven’t hired a single person. You know … Superintendents come in here and fire everybody and then they bring in their own folks from wherever. Not one person from Athens Georgia other than me that works at DeKalb School District.
Van Johnson: [48:51]
What is the status of the proposed cell towers for school property?
Well, that’s an item that was passed by a previous … not just a previous board, but I guess 2 generations of boards ago. That was passed and it was placed on my desk and right now, it’s a matter pending at the DeKalb
Commissioners. And, I’m so happy, we have at least two of them here. So, I might want to redirect that question to Commissioner Watson over here who might want to talk about the status of the cell tower contract that was passed by the board, but is now pending at county government. Let’s give our Commissioner a round of applause.
Commissioner Watson: [49:30]
Thank you, Mike. You did that in the house a couple of times too… Good evening. It is being reviewed right now by our legal department. And we want to make sure that we address the item of the cell towers in such a way that we could be responsible to the legalities of the cell tower. We’re trying to treat it just like a special land use plan right now, SLUP, to make sure that we’re in complete compliance legally to make sure that it works. So, right now, it has been tabled, Tom. And we’re actually looking at it in our legal department. It should come out this summer and we’ll be happy to come back and report what we’re going to do with it. But, right now, we have it in our legal department to make sure that we can do it as a legal department and as a county.
Van Johnson: [50:19]
I want to note that Commissioner Elaine Boyer is in the house. The next question is to Superintendent Thurmond. You’re 1/3 of the way through your 90 day plan. What deliverables are complete and which deliverables keep you awake at night?
Well, first. The first deliverable that we had was, number 1, develop a balanced FY ’14 budget. That’s on the table to be considered. Next deliverable was to go out and begin to restore trust. Internal and external stake holders. That was the meeting and purpose of my visiting tour where I went everywhere I was invited and tried to, in a positive way, engage the stake holders of this school district.
Secondly, we begin to change the focus of the district from the central office to helping every employee recognize that their contributions are important to the overall success of the DeKalb County School District. Issue with Success For All. That was a major issue. Eliminated Success For All, like Mr. McMahan said, cause it was expensive, did not have the support of our teachers and so this will not be done next year.
We’re also beginning now to address the issues that deal directly with academic achievement and academic performance. And, this is important. And, I think this is the most important issue. In my plan, there are several references to parent, adult guardian, mentor involvement. Talk about high performing schools and under performing schools, and we have both in DeKalb County. In the high performing schools, I mentioned to you about the 3 that I mentioned, are scattered all over the county. The high performing schools are not just in North DeKalb. But, Arabia Mountain was 14th … best high school in the state of Georgia. It’s in deep Southeast Dekalb county. Margaret Harris, South Dekalb. You’ve got Chamblee which is 6th highest, North Dekalb.
Let me tell you the one thing that is very consistent in that all of these high performing schools share in common. They have very active PTAs and very robust parent engagement. I talked to a young lady named Marcia Coward, who is over council of PTAs in DeKalb County. We work with her and the old statisticians and created, we plotted out high performing schools, but we also did a system of surveys and evaluations of PTA councils. Where are they active and where are they nonexistent? Almost point by point, high performing schools, very active PTAs.
I spent Spring Break researching the topic that dealt with academic achievement and parental involvement. You’ve gotta have a great board and you have one. You need a superintendent involved, excellent principals, you need engaged and trained teachers. But all of the studies, almost all of them without exception suggest that the person or persons that has the greatest influence on a child’s academic achievement is not the Superintendent, or the principal or the teacher. But, it is whom … parents. Parents. It’s almost impossible. I don’t care how accomplished the teacher is. Without the support from parent or adult … engagement, it is almost impossible for that teacher to successfully teach a child. Is that right?
So, what we’re going to do is recalibrate. Typically if you look at the high stakes testing movement. Often times it marginalizes, particularly low income parents. So, through Title I, we’re going to review and redeploy our … Title I, those schools that are Title I receiving additional funding if they have students that are either low income or qualify for free lunch. And, by the way, 71% of the students enrolled in the DeKalb School District, qualify for free or reduced lunch. 71%. Now, the assumption being, maybe the parents don’t care. I don’t buy that. We are going to engage parents that may not have been involved, get involved to help us educate their children. It worked for me, it worked for you, and I think it’ll work for other parents. That’s going to be … we’re going to ask parents to accept responsibility in helping us help their children. I believe that it’s going to have a major difference, typically in areas where we have low, under performing schools. We have the resources to do it, but we have not used those resources in a way that will support that effort. I believe, and I know that not all parents are not even. I understand that some parents are working.
Some parents may not be as educated as I am. I get that. But our English as a second language students, our ESOL students, many parents can’t speak English. And, by the way, one of the big mistakes we made, 20% of our population are students who speak English as a second language. But, last year we eliminated our interpreters. Brilliant, right. So, that means, in many ways, we cut off communication with parents. Teachers tell me that now, the only way they communicate with parents is through their children. So, can you imagine having a parent teacher conference with a child. OK. You get it right. You understand what happens. So one of the items enhancement in the budget that has been restored interpreters for what is 20% of our population. We have to have those parents engaged.
I told this story before. You may not have all the resources, but my father, you know the thing about him that I love the most? He was there when I did my homework in the evening. It was always a special time for me. He was always just there, a Georgia sharecropper advanced him there with my homework. I was in middle school when my mother told me, she said you know your father can’t read or write. And it was puzzling to me how could a man that couldn’t read or write help? But, I figured it out when I became a husband and a father. By his presence. He was present in the room.
And we are going to ask every parent, every adult guardian, every mentor to engage and support our efforts to educate all of our children. Y’all read the paper over the last few days. You saw the report from the new Common Core standards, right, you saw it? The truth is, and it’s not race by the way, right? See, one of the mistakes that we talk about sometimes, it’s a race issue. It’s not a race issue. Middle and upper income kids are doing better. Am I right? Arabia Mountain is almost 100% African American, but it’s 100% African American of middle and upper income. The schools that are struggling are the schools where the majority of the population are low income. They just are.
And, so, what we have to do, number 1 is believe that every child can learn. And, I believe it. Believe in the quote that even poor parents love their children too. And, believe that they will help us help their children. Cause, we can’t do it by ourselves. It’s not fair to expect teachers to teach and educate children without the support of parents our guardians. We’re just going to ask everybody to make a contribution in that regard. Is that too much?
Van Johnson: [58:55]
Final 2 questions. How long do appointed board members hold office and will they need to be elected to remain on the board?
December, 2014, Dr. Carter is December, 2014. Of course, in … next year, which is ’14, every board member will be up for election ain’t that right Mr. McMahan? 7, it will be seven, but all 7 … we’re going from 9 to 7 and all 7 will be up for election or re election in 2014. It will be a fun political year.
Just to add on that, we were asked, the board members, to come to Redan High School. 7 of the 9 showed up. That was the question, we don’t see y’all politicking at all. When are y’all going to start getting ready for the election next year? It was John Coleman, from Dunwoody, who took the mic and he goes, similar to what Karen said tonight. We volunteer to do a job. The Governor asked, we need 6 quality folks to come in here and do a job. There are … 500 people applied. So, the message was, I’m here to do a job. I didn’t run for elected office. I’m not a person of … in the public … naw. I’m here to do a job. We’re here about getting best practices in place and finding the best people to implement those practices. And, if, somebody else comes along next year that is better qualified to be in this seat, I think everybody on the board, even the elected, I am. It’s definitely not for fun. I’m willing … you want it? I love it, but if I feel I’m still the best person qualified. That’s why I ran in the first place. Believe me, if somebody else can come up here and do as good or better job, believe me … I’ve got more profitable things to do. So, from that stand point, it was refreshing to hear that. To the public … I mean, especially the Redan parents. And it was an honest question. We don’t see you fundraising, we don’t see you … politicking out there. What’s your intentions. You know, we’re here to do a job. Best people, best practices and we can’t cure it all in one year. It’s going to take some time, it’s going to take a few budget cycles, but we’re going to start today. So, that’s where we are.
Van Johnson: [1:01:50]
Wonderful. What is DeKalb doing to train effective principals. Gwinnett County has a very effective internal leadership development program that is competitive and results in strong principals and not just teachers promoted because their good.
Thank you. … In 4 weeks we’re going to have our ??? Leader Intitute, principals, assistant principals and other high levels of support school staff. We met today, working on the agenda to begin to train, re train and up skill our school leaders. It’s going to be a critical meeting. The first of several. The song 2013 we’ve designated as the turn red song of the DeKalb School District. There were only so much we could do during the 3 or 4 months of this fiscal year. We are going to work every day over this summer to help train, not just principals, but regional Superintendents. And, by the way, one of the things that were doing with out Regional Superintendents, is that we’re decentralizing authority. We’re going to allow them, we’re going to decentralize decision making authority from the central office and place that authority closer to the point of the delivery of the service. So, we will be retraining, re positioning, re engineering and re visioning how we do the work, what our purpose is and how we’re going to work together to get better. And, so, in the agenda reading, … planning for that we’re going to be working all Summer. This is one thing I said, the people in the central … as I travel around and talk to administrators, and teachers, and stake holders like yourself, the school district that reopens in August will be very, very different that the one that closed today. We’re moving in a new direction. We have a new vision. We have a new focus. We won’t solve all of these problems in one education cycle, or one budget cycle, or maybe not in your or my lifetime. But, I tell you what, we’re going to get better. Every day, my goal is to go to work and come home and say, you know what, we’re just a little bit better that what we were yesterday. And, I hope and I encourage you, I await with baited breathe, this report from SACS. It will be independent. I’m not writing it. I will be … we were excited about them coming. But, we want them to know that this board has directed and supported us to do what we are doing and I think it will provide some evidence that we’re moving in the right direction. I want to say this too, you know Governor Deal spoke at our high school graduation on Tuesday night. He will be speaking again tomorrow night at Chamblee Charter High School. First time a sitting Governor has spoken at those 2 high schools. We are proud that he is doing this, supporting this district. And, also, Dr. Mark Elgart will be one of our graduation speakers. He is the president of AdvancED. It won’t influence anything but I figure it couldn’t hurt.
Van Johnson: [1:05:28]
When did you say the report was due out?
In the next 2 to 3 weeks. And they talked to not just myself and board members. But, they talked to principals, they talked to stake holders from the Chamber of Commerce, from parent advocacy groups, from parent council groups from all across the district. And, I want to know, I’m excited, I want a baseline assessment of what if any progress we are making. And, more importantly, what we need to do next to get to where we need to be.
Van Johnson:
Ladies and gentlemen. I think … he’s got the DeKalb School System going in the right direction.