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.

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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. Just a Mom says:

    I think LHS had a lot of kids protesting because they usually have a large enrollment in the STT program. Thiose kids have loved the program and are showing their support. I don’t agree with all your conspiracy theories.

  2. what a sham says:

    My small MA school district did also but it was in the high school. It doesn’t take an entire center to have a planetarium. Add the planetarium to one of the SPLOST rebuild schools and move the actual equipment. Give it a nice simple side entrance so other schools can come and see it and dedicate one person not 5. Much cheaper.

    Aside from the planetarium is there something else in the building we would miss?

  3. Joanne smith says:

    It only cost about $2.50 to join the PTA anything over that is used by the PTA to fund their budget. I have seen PTA dues range from $5.00 to $10.00. Having Fernbank offer science classes is a safety net when local schools cancel classes because of low enrollment and strongly suggest online classes. The system is broke and people like myself who have been fighting for decades have decided to pull our remaining children and enter private school or relocate. While I have no ideal how to fix this clearly broken problem, I can not allow my own children to suffer while we fuss about property, types of programs, tracks, PTA’s, or who has the louder voice and most parental support. Teachers are tired, parents are done, adminstrators run their school as an independent cluster and students still need to be educated. We cannot have a strong system when we have three types of school schedules within one county school system, where some schools have labs and others don’t, where some offer massive AP classes and some barely offer a few, where some have Saturday school to retest and some receive zeros with no chance to retake. The system is unbalanced in so many areas it’s crazy. Some take AP exams and can leave campus some can’t. Some offer classes on scholarships and some pick a few students to work with. Some take field trips and some don’t. Some have cups on tables…red, yellow and green for lunch and some don’t. Some have silent lunch and some have a bad table for disruptive students. Some have recess and some don’t. Some follow IEP’s and some don’t. We have two magnet programs that are suppose to mirror each other and they don’t. One offers German and the other one Spanish. Too many variables, no consistency within the schools that are in the same district. Some teachers are not allowed to give zeros and some are. Some teachers take off points each day an assignment is not turned in and some don’t, same grade level just different schools. Some seniors if they an “A” going into finals can opt out and some can’t. Some middles schools offer up to three different year long foreign languages and some only offer a six week course. Some gifted programs pull kids out of classrooms and some the gifted teacher comes into the classroom. In order to begin to balance this district we have to come together and begin doing things in a similar fashion. We have to have some basic rules with standards that are the same county wide.

  4. wiserthanmyself says:

    You’ve put your finger on several key failings of the system. We, too, chose private schools, despite the enormous cost, when we saw what awaited our kids in DCSS. The leadership deficit is profound, as is the lack of a vision by the Board, which after all constitutes the only consistency in the revolving administration scenario we’re in. Their lack of credentials and experience in education is obvious by virtue of their inattention to teacher and student well-being.

  5. DinoMom says:

    As another mom who has pulled her kid from DCSD, I wholeheartedly agree with Joanne’s comments. I never anticipated having to leave the public school system and my child no longer has a college fund because of the expense involved with private school, but I felt going private was the only option I had left. My child was not getting a quality education in DCSD and I could see virtually no hope for significant change any time in the near future. DCSD is completely broken and I no longer believe that it can be fixed internally.

  6. educator90 says:

    Changeforgood, are you talking about Mt. Lebanon School District outside of Pittsburgh? If so, it’s an awesome school district, and much smaller than DeKalb. They pay more in taxes as well.

  7. justwatch says:

    And still be principal? There are many school systems that actually have administrators teaching a class or two during the school year. Especially with so many APs in a school, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

  8. educator90 says:

    Where I grew up, the schools were small and the AP and advanced classes were not feasible. Kids were sent to the community college if they wanted these classes. This would save the district a lot of money.

  9. educator90 says:

    Teachers have been teaching from carts for a long time. They could set up their cart before they leave and have it ready for the next day. Problem solved. Teachers are always spending their own money to have the supplies needed, why should FSC teachers be any different?

  10. wiserthanmyself says:

    The Nation’s Report Card on science learning shows why we need more places like FSC, not fewer. Science teachers are often part of the problem: you have to understand content to transmit content. Until science education is improved, we’ll continue to fall behind as a nation.
    http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/06/19/36naep.h31.html?tkn=VLPFYOoO%2Fh6K0gBMoWRnkBNKB%2B3NDBvfmvWl&cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS1

  11. Frustrated Educator says:

    I agree. What also makes this sad is added to this resource list of have and have nots, there will be schools with unacessible libraries as 25 librarians and all library clerks will be eliminated. The remaining librarians may have to share and service 2 or more schools. So with the new curriculum and reading program, there are less people to help support and instruct students. Any guesses as to what schools will be most affected?

  12. DinoMom says:

    NO teacher should have to spend his/her own money on supplies, especially when take-home pay is getting cut every single year. It’s shameful to have the number of $100,000+ salaries that DCSD yet not fund the classrooms sufficiently to provide basic supplies.

  13. Fed up says:

    Ha! so true………

    “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.”

  14. science supporter says:

    FSC teachers already spend lots of their own money on supplies, as well as lots of their own time on creating lesson plans, demonstrations and lab materials. And guess what, when those teachers lose their jobs at FSC, and get teaching jobs outside DeKalb, they will take all these resources, purchased with their own money, with them.

  15. concerned teacher says:

    Amen. You can’t credit any one teacher, organization or entity for the accomplishments of students. All of the experiences they have with different teachers, organizations AND parents contribute to the success of a child.

  16. Miz Merty says:

    Let me correct this, the rumor is that former Peachtree Middle Principal, Steve Donahue. who most recently was Director of the Service Center, has been moved to a teaching position. can anyone verify?

  17. Concerned DeKalb Mom says:

    So…my question to the FSC supporters…if the Board chooses to keep FSC open, where would you choose to pull the $4.7 million to fund it? Would you add another furlough day? Add another student to class sizes? Genuine question here…be the Board. Fix it so FSC can stay. And let’s not spend time wailing about the mismanagement of funds thus far, that’s a given. Based on the proposed budgets released (Dunwoody Mom has one on her SchoolDaze blog), where would you get the $4.7 million?

  18. justwatch says:

    There are schools (Lakeside, for example) that have two media specialist. I suspect that they will be dropped to one. We also have some very small schools (Coralwood, for example) that have full time librarians. There may be room for sharing.

  19. Retired DeKalb teacher says:

    You nailed the problem!

  20. science supporter says:

    We need to see the entire budget, not just the short list of cuts that have been proposed. There are other places to cut – it is just that the superintendent and the board have not recommended any major cuts other than those on this short list. Everything needs to be on the table, not just the low hanging fruit and easy targets. The first place to start is to look at programs and services that don’t directly affect academics. We need to see the budget for high school athletics, including upkeep of all the fields, personnel in the central office, coach and athletic coordinator stipends at the school level.

  21. Concerned DeKalb Mom says:

    The thing about athletics–and I’m not arguing pro or con–is that it is a revenue producing activity for the county. No other program pays back part (if not all…I have no idea what the athletic budget is) of what it costs to run it. Stipends are not that big. And, fields and stadiums will still require upkeep even if the department is shuttered…we don’t need all of our stadiums and athletic fields in DeKalb starting to look like our abandoned school properties.

  22. DinoMom says:

    Also, a lot of the schools charge pretty hefty fees for participating in a sport, so that adds additional revenue to the programs. Of course, you could argue the point that charging these fees to students affects accessibility to sports since many families are unable to pay the fees. However, that’s another topic for another day…

  23. Concerned Biologist says:

    It’s not FSC taking credit, it’s the kids themselves giving credit to FSC.

  24. science supporter says:

    At our HS, for the major sports – football, baseball, and basketball – the majority of participants don’t pay the required fees, so there is negative revenue there.
    Before making drastic cuts to academic programs and increasing class sizes, we must see all the numbers for athletics. If the choice is between having my child in larger classes, or having a football team at the HS, it is a no-brainer.

  25. wiserthanmyself says:

    Good question. For starters: 1) identify someone to lead FSC who has proven him/herself as both a science educator, grant writer, and good administrator. Open up the position to applicants (the second-in-command person at FSC is well-respected and does a good job); 2) eliminate positions at FSC that aren’t needed for the direct support of science education; 3) Get rid of the present science “Science Coordinator” at the County level–he’s ineffective and refuses to work with FSC–and fund the FSC Director position from the salary $$ saved; 4) let FSC staff have input on how best to use their expertise. Most want a greater role in staff/program development, and are already impatient with the meager outreach and single-visit programs they now provide–impetus for change at FSC is inside the place, not just outside; 5) Let FSC staff AND other interested science instructors use their Professional Development time to develop evidence-based criteria for a science curriculum for DCSD that can be carried out given present resources and facilities. Although that might sound like a lot of people to work together, in practice, relatively few teachers are interested in participating in science training opportunities. You could start with contacting the present DCSS Department Chairpeople to generate a short list of who would be effective in curriculum development. Not perfect, but at least it’s a structure that’s in place; 6) Generate three substantial grant applications for outside funding for FSC; 7) Give this whole plan one school year for preparation to the Board and community, and if it’s not completed, then close the place. The above wouldn’t cost additional money and would save quite a bit in salary cuts.

  26. DinoMom says:

    @Science Supporter –

    I think that sports are tremendously beneficial to a young person’s development, both physically and mentally. Nonetheless, I totally agree with you. Academic needs come first. If a choice must be made, smaller class sizes should always take precedence, especially since this benefits all students, not just the athletically inclined few.

  27. No Name says:

    The loss of full-time librarians and trained library clerks will affect student achievement. If you are concerned about student achievement in DCSD schools, you should be concerned about the plan to cut librarians and library clerks. Scholastic has put together a nice summary of research on this subject. There are many state studies that show how important our school library programs are to student achievement. The link is http://www.scholastic.com/content/collateral_resources/pdf/s/slw3_2008.pdf

    State requirements for staffing of schools include the employment of a full-time media specialist for each base-size or larger school. Base size for K-5 schools is 450 students, for Grades 6-8 it is 624 students, and for Grades 9-12 it is 970. If DCSD can increase class sizes, they may be able to limit school library services.

  28. Miss Management says:

    My child’s science teacher at Shamrock several years ago held class in a trailer. With no equipment, not even running water. I think they had ONE microscope for the class to share.

  29. Just a Mom says:

    Being part of a “team” – whether it is athletic, drama, band, chorus – is the only way some kids make it through high school. They find their group to relate to and can count on each other. Wanting to stay on the team can be a big motivator to keep grades up. DCSS had several millions of dollars in college music scholarships awarded this year. We have to find a way to keep these programs funded. So I would propose that lottery-selected magnet programs all be eliminated and that funding be used to ensure opportunities for every child. No one has to enter a lottery to be in chorus, join a JV team, or be in a play.

  30. Click on our TAB at the top labeled “FACTS & SOURCES”. Pull down to “AUDITS & BUDGETS”. View or download some of the items we have stored here. Curious: Last year, we went round and round with the same kind of budget cut discussions. In the end, the board voted to make over $30 million in cuts to the 2010-11 budget, and $100 million in cuts to the 2011-12 budget. Now, they’re saying we need to cut yet another $70-$85 million for 2012-13. But oddly, when you compare the budgets, in the document labeled “Budget Detail” found in the Audits & Budgets” tab, the total budgets ring up as below:

    2010 – $836,598,734, 201 (actual)
    2011 – $807,823,774 (actual)
    2012 – $774,598,089 (budget)
    2012 – $799,259,065 (projected)
    2013 – $801,402,815 (budget)

    So – where are all of the supposed “cuts” that were made? In total, we are not that far from our 2010 budget, but that budget included a one-time $42,460,080 ARRA federal grant. So it’s basically the same. We’ve stayed the same!! Not only that, enrollment has DECREASED during this time and buildings have closed and consolidated! Where are the savings?

  31. Concerned Biologist says:

    Exactly, we are being handed a list of proposed cuts that slice into academic programs and impact the school house and yet the supposed prior cuts are not evident. Where is the detailed budget and why is the board not asking for it? As posted in an earlier thread, look at Gwinnett’s online budget – excruciatingly detailed. Compare that to what is made public in DeKalb. There is no way we have made enough cuts in unnecessary spending to justify these proposed cuts and classroom size increases. Why isn’t Nancy Jester demanding a very detailed budget? If they can publish that information in Gwinnett they can do it here.

  32. The Deal says:

    AMEN, alm! When you choose public school, you are choosing to be part of a system that is obligated to provide a quality education to all of its students. If you want or need special treatment or need somewhere to throw your mounds of cash, go to private school.

  33. The Deal says:

    No one is opposed to science teachers. Some of us are opposed to a bloated, administrative-heavy, non-certified teacher-heavy science museum being funded by a school system that does not benefit every student. Take all of that money and pour it into a high-quality science program that reaches every student instead of paying designers, cabinet makers, and utilities for an old building.

  34. justwatch says:

    They publish a very detailed budget every year. Keep in mind that this one was developed by the last COO, so it probably isn’t very well done or accurate.

    Click to access approved-budget-detail-%282012%29.pdf

  35. Yes, that detailed budget is also available in the “AUDITS & BUDGETS” section of the “FACTS & SOURCES” tab. But the document I cited showed year over year comparisons without much overall budgetary change, which several of us found quite puzzling.

    Here is a link to the damage the school board caused to neighborhoods by shuttering so many schools and leaving them to vandals in order to ‘save money’.

    DCSS vacant properties causing blight countywide

    Where is the savings? What are the plans for these properties? What more damage can be done by the new round of ‘cuts’?

    The solution is not found by ‘cherry-picking’ through current spending and choosing what can be cut. (Ramona Tyson referred to the cuts to teacher’s pensions as ‘going after the big nuts’.) The only logical thing to do at this point is start from scratch. Build a school system from the ground up, given the money we project to receive. How many students will we have? How many teachers will they need? What subjects will those teachers need to teach? How many classrooms will it take? Block by block build a school system based on what we NEED, not by looking at what we currently have that can be tossed out the window in order to save a buck the easiest and quickest way.

  36. formerdekalbparent says:

    Correct, and tim Freeman will be an Asst. Principle, but I do not know the schools they will be in.

  37. educator90 says:

    If they have a teaching certificate, than they should have a job. If they leave, that is their choice. Right now we are facing an 85 million dollar shortfall, and can’t afford the luxury of Fernbank Science. Sorry that these science teachers don’t want to be in a regular school. If they truly cared about the kids and providing them with a quality science education, they wouldn’t care if they did it at Fernbank or in school.

  38. educator90 says:

    Fernbank Science has been on the chopping block before, why haven’t these supporters looked into alternative financing before now? If Fernbank meant so much, they would have gone and found other resources.

  39. Dunwoody Mom says:

    Kinda figured something was up when I saw his current job posted on PATS.

  40. Same here. Private. Can’t afford it. No choice. Mad. We are caught in the middle of two political sides of a never ending battle. We are having to pay for a basic education that we should be getting via public school, but can’t. Meanwhile, poor children are suffering and rich kids are getting luxuries. This is a messed up idea of desegregation or wherever it STEM’ed from. (pun intended)

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