What is happening with the DeKalb County School System reductions in force (RIFs)? More to the point, why is DeKalb County School System blatantly breaking the law?
Maybe school system leaders are acting too quickly due to incredible pressure to make serious budget cuts coupled with their equally incredible refusal to make the cuts in the bloated Palace staff instead of in the classroom. The Palace is where most of the friends-and-family employees are clustered — and that is protected territory.
Or maybe school system leaders are not getting proper legal advice. Or maybe our human resources department is in such disarray that they have become completely incompetent.
Whatever the reason, Atkinson and her minions need to take a breath, step back and assess their actions. Children’s futures, as well as people’s jobs and lives are at stake. Extreme caution should be heeded when making reductions in force.
At the August 2012 meeting, when the board refused to approve Dr. Atkinson’s request to further reduce teachers and staff due to fewer retirees than predicted, Nancy Jester made the point — again! — that she did not think staff was following the law when compiling the list of personnel to be laid off. Georgia law says personnel cannot be laid off based on seniority alone. Georgia law says performance must be a factor in an evaluation process determining who goes and who stays.
DCSS does not have a decent evaluation system in place. In fact, pretty much everyone gets the same evaluation: “satisfactory,” resulting in reliance on the “second factor”: seniority. In DCSS, a list of teachers and staff based on seniority would be essentially identical to a list based on performance and seniority. This is not legal. DCSS’s highly paid attorney, Josie Alexander, should have insisted long ago that HR develop a detailed system of performance evaluation to be used not only for layoffs, but for promotions as well.
Enter the library media specialists. The latest round of budget cuts approved by the Gang of Five on the board (5-4) included reducing library media specialists by 25 and eliminating all library media clerks. In order to reduce media specialists (who are teachers) and who are vitally important to students, DCSS needed a waiver from the state (just like they needed a waiver to increase class size). DCSS did not secure this waiver before they RIF’d the media specialists, so they applied for the waiver after the fact. This request was on the agenda for last week’s State of Georgia Board of Education meeting and the Georgia Board staff was recommending a denial. Before the meeting took place, the item was dropped from the agenda per a request from DCSS. Assuming that the dismissal of the library media specialists and the library media clerks was illegal, DSW went looking for information to confirm.
That’s when we found this blogpost (below). The post we found has excerpts from Tekshia Ward-Smith’s testimony, under oath. Ward-Smith was recently named head of HR since the so-called family leave invoked by Jamie Wilson. More recently, we’re told Ward-Smith has also taken so-called family leave.
The following are two brief excerpts of the cross examination of TekshiaWard-Smith, Chief Human Resources Officer during the tribunal hearing and Ms. Oinonen’s closing argument. Read the excerpts to understand how very little thought and effort went into the decision as to who to dismiss.
Excerpt of the Cross Examination of TekshiaWard-Smith:
Q. Okay. Now, reminding you that you’re under oath, Dr. Ward-Smith, I’d like to ask you would you admit to me that there are some media specialists currently still employed with DeKalb County that have actually been on a PDP at one point in their career?
A. Yes, one point in their career. That is the key phrase.
Q. And would you agree with me that there are some media specialists currently employed with DeKalb County School District that have been on a PDP while as employees of the School District, DeKalb County?
A. I just answered it. Yes.
Q. Well, let me clarify just for the point of the record. I earlier asked would you agree with me that there are currently some media specialists that are still employed with your School District who have been over the course of their entire career in the United States of America have been on a PDP. And I believe you answered yes, correct?
A. Yes. Uh-huh (affirmative).
Q. And now, my second question, just to clarify: Would you also agree with me that there are still media specialists that are going to go back to work this fall who have also been on a PDP while under the auspices of employment within the DeKalb County School District?
Q. Would you agree with me that Mr. Lynch has never been on a PDP at DeKalb County School District?
A. I cannot confirm, but I would say I don’t have information in front of me.
Q. Okay. You don’t have the information — you’re saying today under oath that you have no idea whether Mr. Lynch has ever been on a PDP?
A. I’m saying I did not have a PDP for Mr. Lynch.
Q. Okay. And you are also saying, and, again, I’m not trying to be difficult, I just want to understand for the purpose of advocating for my client that you are stating under oath today that you have no knowledge whether he’s ever been on a PDP before in his life?
A. I am saying I did not have a PDP for Mr. Lynch.
Q. You don’t have one today or you don’t —
A. I do not have one —
Q. — have knowledge?
A. I don’t have knowledge of a PDP for Mr. Lynch.
Q. Okay. Thank you. Would you admit, Dr. Ward-Smith, that there are some media specialists that are currently still employed with your School District who have received an NI, needs improvement, on their annual performance evaluations at one point during their career over the past year at DeKalb County School District?
A. Yes, ma’am.
Q. Okay. So there are actually media specialists going back to work this fall who have an NI on their annual performance evaluations?
A. I would say yes, there are.
Q. Okay. And you know that Mr. Lynch has never gotten an NI at DeKalb County School District?
A. Over the last three years, the annual evaluation overall ratings that we reviewed — and like I say, I can’t answer that. But at that particular point, I have no knowledge of Mr. Lynch having an NI.
A. Over the last three years.
Q. Do you have any knowledge of Mr. Lynch’s annual performance evaluation, period?
A. Yes, ma’am. I have knowledge that it was overall satisfactory.
Q. Okay. Now, let’s go back to this RIF evaluation that’s now required by Georgia law since May of 2012, regarding considering the primary factor the performance of the educator. So I’d like to talk about this. Now, I think you’ve already admitted that media specialists — there’s media specialists that are still employed at DeKalb who don’t have dual certifications like Mr. Lynch and who have been on Needs Improvement, unlike Mr. Lynch, and who have been on PDPs, unlike Mr. Lynch. So I want to ask you how many media specialists, to your know- — media specialists, it’s like a librarian, right?
A. Library media specialist. Yes, ma’am.
Q. Okay. Okay. So how many library media specialists, to your knowledge, have a 4.0 masters degree in Library Information Sciences?
A. I’m not aware.
Q. Okay. Would you agree that certainly there’s probably just a small percentage of them out of the whole 130 folks that you evaluated?
A. I’m not aware of an exact number.
Q. So you don’t have that data today that you can show us whether —
A. I do not.
Short Excerpt of Ms. Oinonen’s Closing Argument:
Then read the attorney’s closing statement (below), which, in part, says:
This stinks to high Heaven. Something is going on. And it’s up to you all to address this issue and to let them know that we understand we’re in deficit. We understand we have to RIF people, and it’s difficult and it’s hard decisions. But when we’re going to make these hard decisions, my God, at least let’s make them right so they don’t end up getting reversed and we end up being in a deeper hole. Let’s at least follow our own policy, and let’s do it as educators.
We’re educators. My God. We’ve trained on how to do these things. I mean, isn’t that what we taught constantly as educators, about learning assessments and evaluations, and we can’t even evaluate our own properly? There’s something that’s going on here. And I’m asking you today to address it and nip this in the bud, because if they’re doing this to media specialists, then what are they going to do with the teachers?
Think about that when that comes down the pipe, when 250 teachers get passed, and the Board recommends that they’re laid off. Is this how they’re going to evaluate? If you don’t say something now, they’re going to do it to all the teachers in the DeKalb County School District. They’re going to RIF the people with satisfactory evaluations, and they’re going to keep the people on PDP and with NI’s in their record. And what outcome for results is that going to be to the children of DeKalb County? Think about that.
It’s worth your time to go to the blog and read all of Ms. Oinonen’s closing statement. The burden of proof was on DCSS to show that they were following a legal RIF policy and they did not even do that. Did they show a database? No. Did they bring even one personnel file to show for the people who were RIF’d? No. Did they present any kind of statistical analysis? Did they show percentages or any type of formula based on the number of “satisfactory” evaluations compared to “unsatisfactory”? No and No.
What, exactly, does Josie Alexander do for the big bucks she gets paid?
BTW — we have said this before, but it bears repeating: if you conspire to break the law on behalf of DeKalb County Schools, you are most likely on your own — even if you did it at the direction of your boss or the board or Atkinson. They are experts at covering their tracks. You probably will be thrown under the bus so fast, you won’t even see the tires that leave their tracks down your back.
Williams Oinonen, the law firm who won this case and is positioned to win others, is an example of the top drawer representation you will receive if you are a member of GAE. Think about it. And take a look at the Williams Oinonen website.
 OCGA 20-2-948 PART 7. TERMINATION, SUSPENSION, NONRENEWAL, DEMOTION, OR REPRIMAND says:
(a) A local board of education shall not adopt or implement a policy that allows length of service to be the primary or sole determining factor when implementing a reduction in force. The local board shall consider as the primary factor the performance of the educator, one measure of which may be student academic performance.
(b) Any policy that does not comply with subsection (a) of this Code section shall be considered invalid and the State Board of Education shall be authorized to take action to withhold all or any portion of state funds in accordance with Code Section 20-2-243.
(c) This Code section shall not apply if a local board of education eliminates an entire program.
 “Williams Oinonen LLC was very gratified with the courage the Tribunal showed in making the right decision to reject Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson’s recommendation to terminate the contract of an educator in DeKalb County School District through a reduction in force.”
“While the educator ended up accepting a very attractive offer at a nearby school district so the Tribunal’s decision did not end up having to be ruled on by the Board, Ms. Oinonen hopes that the DeKalb County Board of Education will take note as to how the Reduction in Force is being applied, ask the right questions and demand accountability from the Superintendent in the future.”