Political Power in DeKalb County

by Mpaza S. Kapembwa

As the DeKalb County School board deals with its deficit, I hope they don’t give in to political pressure. Politics, not mismanagement, played the biggest role in getting us here.

Times are tough in the school system but times are always tough at some schools because they are politically weak. At the politically powerful schools, I doubt times are tough.

Fernbank Science Center, which is not a school, but a center created to enhance the science curriculum, was on the chopping block but lo and behold it is saved once again. Let’s not forget the force behind them and the potential for similar forces to influence decisions by board members.

Every parent wants what is best for their own kids. However, when power groups like the Fernbank Elementary PTA instruct their members in PTA correspondence to dominate public meetings and to be sure to “control the pen, control the mike, or better yet both,” drowning out the voices of others in order to ensure that their school does not get redistricted, we have moved beyond parental involvement to political bullying. There are other groups out there that come to the table only to advance their own interests and bully their board member into supporting their causes.

The school board is charged with creating balance throughout the county, but too often has to try to make right decisions in the face of great resistance and pressure to do what is not in the interest of DeKalb. When it comes to capital allocation and equity in spending, it shouldn’t matter which parents are more organized, which parents wear coordinated t-shirts, which parents have dozens of PTA committees or which parents show up to every board meeting and dominate the public dialogue. The allocations should be fair in spite of political pressure.

Politically powerful parent groups do not represent the will of all of DeKalb County and as a former student, I can tell you they never represented my interest. We are too focused on discrediting the system we have forgotten about the parents, the driving force behind it all.

I trust the board to represent those with no voice in the process of public education. Public education stakeholders include more than loud PTA parents. My community is full of thousands of parents who defer their judgments to their public servants out of public trust. It includes many parents and children who are simply intimidated by the process and the aggressive competition for limited resources.

I hope the board will have the courage to tell some groups, “NO. Not this time.”

Their decisions have to be financially sensible-not politically sensible. The school system has 151 facilities. With our financial situation, it is IMPOSSIBLE to keep them all in good shape.

No schools should be having track replacements and other gold-plated athletic facilities when some of our classroom ceilings are crumbling and too many of our elementary schools look more like prisons than a place of hope and of learning. I am assuming that taxpayers are more concerned about classroom than tracks. If I am wrong in this assumption, please forgive me.

Some schools that should be closed are open because of politics. Some parents won’t let their kids attend school with “those other” kids therefore we often have two schools where only one is necessary to serve the public interest. This makes political sense not financial sense. We are broke so we have to go back to financial sense. Perhaps this financial crisis will force DeKalb Schools to put classrooms ahead of tracks and leave no children in “prisons” while others are in resorts. Then again, it may only mean that the crumbs left behind for the unlucky and unheard will simply get smaller while politics continue to rule every decision.

Mpaza S. Kapembwa, a student at Williams College, is a 2011 Cross Keys graduate, Gates Millennium Scholar, Coca Cola Scholar, Dell Scholar and Bank of America Student Leader.

Check out his website for help with scholarship opportunities.

About dekalbschoolwatch

Hosting a dialogue among parents, educators and community members focused on improving our schools and providing a quality, equitable education for each of our nearly 100,000 students. ~ "ipsa scientia potestas est" ~ "Knowledge itself is power"
This entry was posted in Budget Cuts, Fernbank Science Center, School Closings / Redistricting, Student Information and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

110 Responses to Political Power in DeKalb County

  1. Good article. However, I lost trust in the DeKalb public servants because of the misdeeds of a few leaders, who did everything for themselves and their families and friends. Most of these folks are NOT public servants, they are at the public trough feeding their own using OUR tax dollars. The Fernbank crowd is incredibly organized and Dr. Walker is making sure they are taken care of since most of them are responsible for him being elected.

    I no longer have any trust in our system in DeKalb. Local control is all we have left and I am sure, Mr. Cuningham, Dr. Walker or Sarah C-W could care less about my kids in the district where we live.

    I’ve lost trust in a system that has been a failure for almost 10 years. I’l glad Cross Keys was good to this writer. There are a lot of success stories in our system, which is mired in the mud of mediocrity and mistrust.

  2. Amy Parker says:

    Please stop associating the Science Center with the Elementary School and the Museum. The Fernbank Science Center is not affiliated with Fernbank ES or the Fernbank PTA. Please do not further muddy the waters by bringing up their well organized PTA advocacy groups. There is nothing stopping the PTA at any other DeKalb school from assembling their own power group and staging a similiar ploy at a board meeting to benefit their school. Fernbank was not the first group to try it. Perhaps they just have a larger base of parents who actually CARE?

    DCSS is fat with highly paid administrators who seem to have a large number of friends and family on board. A Grand Jury has twice recommended that a special investigation be undertaken of the system. How can there be such gross incompetence to omit a 44 million dollar expense for electricity from the budget?

    The science center is a resource to be treasured. I don’t know if there is another public school system in the country with its own planetarium. Hundreds of the thousands of students who have participated in the various programs over the years have gone on to pursue careers in science. If the county has to cut programs to balance the books, let it be sports and not science that takes the hit.

  3. science supporter says:

    For the record, at a rally this morning in front of Fernbank Science Center, the largest and most vocal group of students was from Lakeside HS, not the Fernbank ES community. Fernbank ES PTA is not leading the charge to save the Science Center. The Science Center benefits kids throughout all DeKalb County schools.

  4. I think Mpaza is clear in stating that Fernbank Science Center is a different entity from Fernbank Elementary School. He was, however, pointing out that they both have very powerful political voices and therefore seem to get their cases heard. Sadly, this is not true for communities like Cross Keys and others that have high levels of poverty and/or immigrants. And personally, it bothers me that some who have commented here seem to think that is due to uncaring parents, which is far from the truth.

    Mpaza is simply making the point that those who squeak loudest seem to get their needs met in DeKalb and [purposely, according to their email edict on redistricting] drown out others who have very basic needs which are often not being met. The board needs to be more proactive in finding out what the needs are for each school and every community (the MGT America study is a very good plan to follow) and make prudent budget decisions that will benefit all students countywide and ensure that everyone is at least getting a quality basic education before layering special programs on top. I think we’ve all said that here for a very long time. And I think we have all long agreed that more can be cut from administrative positions and buildings and programs can be consolidated before heading to the general classroom [teachers] for cuts.

  5. Dunwoody Mom says:

    @Amy Parker, who do you consider PTA’s “power groups” who should organize to promote their own school’s agenda and totally disregard the needs of an entire school district? I guess I have been ignorant all these years of the role of PTA’s.

  6. science supporter says:

    Many times on this blog, folks have posted comments such as we must “ensure that everyone is at least getting a quality basic education before layering special programs on top.” What does this mean? Some would say IB is a special program, but that would mean AP was also and equally “special.” Are visual arts classes special? Then high school athletics must be considered “special” too. High priced athletic programs at the high school level certainly do not benefit all kids at the shcool.

    Is offering an advanced course, whether it be AP or IB, a “luxury” if only 20 kids at a school enroll, even if for those kids, the course is not “special” at all, but the correct instructional level. No one course of study is right for or will benefit all students countywide, so by definition, a large school system will have to offer programs that some may feel are “special.”

  7. Margaret M. Anderson says:

    On Political Power in DeKalb County: Mpaza’s article. Out of the mouths of babes, oft-times comes wisdom!

  8. justwatch says:

    “Hundreds of the thousands of students who have participated in the various programs over the years have gone on to pursue careers in science.” That is an unbelievable exaggeration. Perhaps thousands, but more realistically 100s. All you have to do is look at how few science students in graduate programs are raised in America and you can disprove this.

    No other system operates a planetarium. Why should DeKalb? Atkinson is giving Fernbank supporters a year to spin it off to become a non-profit or a public-private partnership. Instead of having rallies, that is where the energies should be spent.

  9. murphey says:

    I usually agree with Mpaza but I don’t this time. I happen to oppose closing Fernbank Science Center. I do not live near FSC and I do not belong to any group that supports it. Not everyone who supports FSC is part of a mean-spirited, elitist conspiracy. I just believe that cutting out the educational work of FSC and leaving the empty shell merely so that DCSD can hold on to the property is a mistake. There is far too much overpayment of non-teaching positions that should be cut before FSC is destroyed.

  10. Marcy Cooper says:

    We are a part of Dekalb county, but live a good 30-40 minutes away from the FSC. This “treasure” is not something the kids in our area get to partake in very often. And when they do, it is a hurried field trip in which they spend as much time on the bus as in the building. I appreciate that your family is able to partake in this “treasure” because you live close to it. But do you really think it makes sense to benefit a small number of students when the county is bleeding and desperately trying to find places to cut the budget. Are you able to think outside of yourself and your community and see it from another perspective? How about the perspective of all the Dekalb county students?

  11. changeforgood says:

    My very small public school district (one high, one middle, three elementary) in PA had a planetarium in its public middle school. We did not have graft and corruption. Maybe Dekalb could afford the same if we eliminated the mismanagement and incompetence in its present form. I would love to see smaller districts. The top districts in the country are about 15,000 students.

  12. justwatch says:

    I don’t disagree with the “empty shell” comments or with room for additional cuts, however, they aren’t keeping it open to hold on to the property, but rather to give supporters time to figure out to make it an independent organization. This shouldn’t be hard, but it will take a lot of work.
    I do not want a two mil property tax, for a host of reasons. But mainly, because if we do two mils, we are done, there is no more room for property tax increases and next year, at this time, unless something dramatically changes at the state, we will be right back here needing to make cuts.

  13. justwatch says:

    Having read your first paragraph again,. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Healthy school systems don’t occupy on a system where those who scream the loudest get the spoils. In DeKalb, this has had huge consequences because we have so many schools that have a largely uneducated, poor parent base. It is frightening to me that you think this way. It isn’t ok for one school to argue for resources that, if allocated, have a negative impact on the system as a whole. UGH.

  14. momfromhe11 says:

    Al Tate, the FSC teacher who spoke at the 6/4 board meeting, has written an open letter to Dr. Atkinson, and it is contained in the Tucker Patch. I have yet to take a position on the issue, but if FSC can take any action to offset their expenses, I think it is worth paying attention. According to Tate, Fernbank Museum of Natural HIstory has been an impediment in the past.


  15. The Deal says:

    Basic quality education = core subjects. Believe it or not, science supporter, science isn’t taught full-time at every school in DeKalb, despite (or maybe because of) our jewel of a science center.

  16. justwatch says:

    The issue I have is that I think the supporters for FSC will disappear if the status quo remains and this time next year, when the system still doesn’t have any $, FSC will be back on the table.
    My oldest child had such poor science education in high school, that we put the next one in private school. Our best and brighest resources are at FSC and this impacts the day to day instruction going on in our schools in a negative manner. With STT and the advance offerings at FSC, which by the way often only have 7-10 kids in class, they system has removed the most motivated parents from a school building and thus some of the voices that can impact change in the school house.

  17. Hr88 says:

    AP Chemistry and AP Physics C are offered at the science center because at most high schools in DeKalb there are not enough kids to fill the class simply from one school alone. At many excellent schools (outside DeKalb) for highly motivated students, these are considered core science classes.

  18. justwatch says:

    There is another way to address this with itinerant teachers. If you offer these classes regularly, with good, solid instruction, they will become more popular over time. There are many, many students who can’t get to FSC for the after school classes either because they don’t have transportation or they have other commitments. It is far better to work to offer these classes in each school than to pretend that FSC is fully meeting the need.

  19. Dunwoody Mom says:

    Sounds like a good idea. Since DCSD continues to insist on this nonsensical 4×4 block for most high schools, you could have a teacher assigned to teach a couple of AP Science classes, or AP Math classes, etc. in one school 1st Semester and then move that teacher(s) to another school 2nd Semester. “teacher sharing” 🙂

  20. hr88 says:

    We tried to get AP Chem offered at our school and they canceled the class due to too few students. Had nothing to do with the availability of the teacher or the existence of the science center. I agree it is better to offer the class at the school but that has simply not been an option. Without access to these classes, our kids are at a serious disadvantage if they want to go to GA Tech or other engineering programs. And no, it is not an acceptable alternative to take an AP lab science class online.

  21. Dunwoody Mom says:

    I’m just trying to “think outside of the box here”, but couldn’t the AP course be “housed” at one high school, but allow students from a few high schools close, who had their own transportation or on a Marta line, to take the course and then return to their home school for the other courses? If this can be done for STT at FSC for the entire county, why not have a “grouping” of high schools for AP courses? Am I making any sense?

  22. tired of them all says:

    Fernbank is open on weekends. Not all education has to take place in a school. Parents can and should provide educational experiences as well.

  23. Let’s not forget that Fernbank Elementary is why we must pay another 5 years of SPLOST and $475 Million. Rememer the slogan “better schools,” “lower property taxes” was the catch phrase of the Friends of DeKalb aka Fernbank Elem. headed by Marshall Orson. There is no way in the world that the board is going to cut anything at FB after these folks just handed them their SPLOST votes on a silver platter and fooled the voters and the media into thinking a YES was the only way the board size could be reduced (didn’t happen). There is way more to their protest than meets the eye.

    I asked my child’s teacher if she had ever considered taking the first graders (private school) on a field trip to the FB Science Center. Her answer, “we’ve checked into it before, but we were told the program is only 15 minutes long and they won’t let us use their picnic tables to eat lunch so it isn’t really worth the expense.” When my child was in public school in DeKalb and went to the FB Science Center I asked her what she remembered the most. She said “the bus ride.”

    What really gets me is that these folks keep talking about how FB is like having a private school education in the public school system… yeah, that’s great, but since they are the ones who can actually afford it, maybe they should just go out and pay for a private school education. Meanwhile, people like me, who can’t afford it but do not have a viable alterative since our school will either have a cell tower, a child molester, get redistricted or closed in a year or two – we get stuck having to pay for private school with every last cent we can scrape together and do without a college savings fund.

    Must be nice to live in Georgia, make other people pay for your children’s rites of passage while they are left with whatever can be scraped together… but it will turn around to bite them in the end. Because their children are learning terrible lessons about equality and fairness in the world. And the silver spoon doesn’t feed you for long if you can’t relate to others and expect everything to just be handed to you. They aren’t doing their children any favors in the long run. And they certainally don’t care about anyone else’s children but their own.

    Why exactly does it take $4.5 million a year anyway? We’ve heard about maybe $500,000 a year in salaries. Maybe a couple hundred thousand for overhead… that gets us barely close to $1 million. Is it possible that we are dealing with phony numbers here? (No, not in DeKalb, right?) All this protest and they will end up getting their budget cut down to something like $2.5 million, but for all we know they will have actually ended up a million or more ahead of their actual operating budget and then it will be set for life, along with the approval for the ridiculous salaries.

    Fernbank families …. is this really YOUR protest? Or, perhaps this is some manufactured PR machine driven by the board? I wouldn’t be surprised ….

  24. In the case of cell towers, there was a $25,000 payoff that stopped several PTAs in staging protests.

  25. Concerned Biologist says:

    Are you advocating for something or just against anything Fernbank?

  26. That makes sense. Lakeside wants the cell tower money. So, if they protest the closing of the science center, the next logical thing for the board to do is to force all of our schools to get cell towers (since they cannot have one, they don’t care) and they will get the money to finish their construction. They will then point to the FB protest to say “look how much bigger this protest is than the other one (cell towers)” as if that should be the measure by which one item is considered valid over another. These folks have investments tied up in ATT and have been trying to get their foot in the door with our school system because they need to sell their virtual classroom b.s. The biggest push is from the Valhalla Booster group, most of whom live in Fulton, not DeKalb. So, yes, they want all our money funneled for their special programs because they do not care about the rest of our schools or kids. They care about property values in Fulton County, not DeKalb. So, the more our system fails, the more of our teachers they can employ and soon it will be the more of the homebuyers around the metro area they can entice to their communities. See our YouTube video on this subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-iDvHddfac

  27. How do all of our science teachers feel when they hear FB taking credit for every science wiz kid to every come out of a dekalb school?

  28. Name One says:

    The Fernbankers/Druid Hills Civic Association crowd drives me insane. They are located between Decatur and Atlanta, and enjoy all the benefits of both, while paying low unincorporated DeKalb County property taxes. They sold out the now closed Medlock Elementary to make sure their precious attendance lines weren’t touched. They pledged their support to the King of Nepotism, the nefarious Gene Walker, and in return for a new school funded by SPLOST, even though the school is in fine shape and a multi-million addition was added just a few years ago. They are politically powerful due to their heavy campaign contributions to county commissioners and other elected officials. They even supported Vernon Jones to have the county in return spend millions on those tiny Olmstead parks on ponce, barely used by any actual DeKalb County residents.

    The sad part is, they have always looked out for their own interests, and no one else’s. They were behind the Friends of DeKalb Education/SPLOST for SCHOOLS, but would never disclose their names (Hi Amy & Marshall!).

    Give them credit for being the most powerful PTA and neighborhood association in the county. That’s what big money brings to the table. But they are unworthy of any respect, because they could care less about the rest of the school system as long as Fernbank Elementary and its cluster schools get what they want, rest of the system be damned.

  29. The Deal says:

    The Science Center did not make those classes happen, the teachers WITHIN it did. If we keep the teachers and house those special classes at certain high schools, they will get the same benefit without the cost of our school system maintaining a science center that should really be owned by someone or something else besides a badly-run school system.

  30. justwatch says:

    Hey Walter Woods, if you are reading this.

    Today at least 20 new principals were announced as well as some central office placements. Why no press release or email blast?

  31. This is from the “Aha Connection” in Dunwoody.

    Big Changes for administration in Dunwoody’s Public Schools DeKalb County School System announced the following today for the 2012-2013 School Year:

    Noel Maloof (Vanderlyn’s current Principal) is the new Dunwoody High School Principal.

    Tracey Crenshaw (current Vanderlyn Assistant Principal) is the new Vanderlyn Elementary Principal.

    Jennifer Pittman Sanders (current Dunwoody Elementary Assistant Principal and former Vanderlyn Assistant Principal) is the new Dunwoody Elementary Principal.

    Congratulations to these outstanding leaders in our schools and community!

  32. Frustrated says:

    Yes, lots of changes in Dunwoody Cluster. Vanderlyn’s principal is the new Dunwoody HS principal (he was the asst principal there before coming to Vanderlyn 4 years ago). Vanderlyn Asst Principal Crenshaw is new principal. Dunwoody Elementary Asst Principal is their new Principal. Not sure what happened to Mr. Clark (former Dun Elem principal.) Source is AHA! Connection.

    On Fernbank. It is a nice to have. Not a need to have. Bottom line. I love that my kids see the planetarium, but you know what? I’m willing to let it go in exchange for 2 less kids in the classrom count or 2 less teacher furlough days. Nancy Jester is so right when she says we have to make tough choices. I just wish her little alliance were big enough to sway the majority on the board.

  33. Dunwoody Mom says:

    Mr. Clark was reassigned to McLendon Elementary.

  34. Concerned DeKalb Mom says:

    Did the “Aha Connection” receive this information from the county?

  35. alm says:

    My kids are zoned for a Title 1 school and I have a problem with “Perhaps they just have a larger base of parents who actually CARE?” Our PTA dues are $5 a year per family because that’s what people can afford. Every family is a member and PTA meetings are PACKED. Our budget for the year was less than Fernbank spent for yoga in 2009. http://schools.dekalb.k12.ga.us/fernbank/pta/files/32F65961E2A247008658380D8FA58721.pdf
    If they can afford it fine, but don’t say we don’t care because that’s just not true.

  36. Hr88 says:

    Tough choices mean that everything needs to be on the table, including the sacred cow, high school athletics. Sports are an extra and should be considered for cuts before cuts are made to academics and classroom instruction.

  37. DinoMom says:

    “There is nothing stopping the PTA at any other DeKalb school from assembling their own power group and staging a similiar ploy at a board meeting to benefit their school.”

    Seriously? You honestly think that it’s OK for one school to stage a power play in an attempt to get more than their fair share of the resource pie? In our current economic crisis, do you not realize that for everything “extra” you manage to get for your school, you are taking resources away from another school, most likely one that doesn’t have the political organization and clout that your school has managed to build? That’s just wrong.

    Standing up to support your school is great; preventing others from doing the same is being a bully, plain and simple.

  38. justwatch says:

    I doubt it. I think word of mouth as the school councils were notified.

  39. Miz Merty says:

    Heard that the Peachtree Middle Principal will be teaching math…True?

  40. wiserthanmyself says:

    Some of the ideas expressed on this blog do not take into account the depth of incompetence in DCSD, particularly when it comes to logistics. A huge impediment to centralized classws like AP classes is the difficulty of transportation. Just getting students to FSC for STT is a mini-nightmare for the first several days of the semester, every single time. Many of the auditorium programs offered by FSC teachers out at schools–idea was to include ALL middle school students from a cluster and bus them to the high school, where there’s an auditorium, then return them to home schools for afternoon follow-up lessons–didn’t work out because the schools couldn’t coordinate buses, classrooms, or teachers. Entire schools simply failed to show up. You can’t have that with an AP class. Similar problems are routinely encountered when FSC teachers go to schools: many science labs are not set up, supplies are missing (yes, these problems are more common in South County), and safety regulations are violated because of overcrowding. You can’t teach AP chemistry or biology as a traveling teacher unless the infrastructure is set up and ready to go when you reach your afternoon school. It’s not like teaching English or math: science takes equipment, supplies, and prep time. Lots of prep time. Sometimes teachers are talked about on this blog as if they’re part of the furniture, to be shifted around according to some kind of idealized plan, whereupon they will perform brilliantly and somehow choose to have a job like that in the first place. Many science teachers in DCSD start out with a “cart” on which they carry their equipment from room to room, rushing through the hallways during breaks between classes. Few teachers would want to travel between schools in their glorified “cart”–their car–to teach a challenging subject to packed classrooms of kids, many of whom have serious discipline and emotional problems that the district chooses not to address. Good science teaching requires strong support from the entire school system. The teachers at FSC are frustrated and fed up with the lack of support from DCSD, yet most are passionately committed to their mission. If FSC is eliminated, I predict that many of these teachers will seek work in a setting where at least the minimal requirements for teaching science well are met, including federally mandated class sizes, necessary equipment, and supervision by someone who is academically qualified to supervise science learning.,

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