The following is taken from comments left by a regular DSW contributor. We think these are honest and hopeful and should be the kind of thoughts pondered by all of DeKalb’s residents going forward in 2014. Is there any way for the large, diverse, often opposing leadership to improve the educational outcomes in the system as it is? Or, could it be time to break up the system into smaller, more manageable parts? What is best for the children of DeKalb?
Let’s all hope for a Happy New Year. This past year has been very eventful. One year ago, I was in the pits regarding our school system and wondering just how low the DCSS could go before it touched bottom. Our property values were tanking and the school board just didn’t seem to understand the link between property values and funding the school system. January of 2013 was just terrible – the school board led by Eugene Walker was meeting week after week in “executive session”, Dr. Atkinson had “disappeared” and her tenure proved to be short-lived, the DCSS moved secretly and, with no input, appointed Michael Thurmond to be “interim” superintendent, the State School Board scheduled hearings to consider its recommendation to the Governor regarding the DCSS School Board. Thurmond’s first priority was to give a ringing defense for the old school board. That didn’t work. In February, many of us watched the entire, grueling 14-hour hearing. Its recommendation to the Governor was unanimous and the Governor did remove the DCSS School Board. Eugene Walker appealed his case to Federal Court which denied his case but referred it to the Georgia Supreme Court. And we waited until the end of November to hear a unanimous Georgia Supreme Court rule for the children of Dekalb County and against Eugene Walker. The Governor appointed a new school board which appeared to have outstanding credentials but it proved to be one of my greatest disappointments of the year. I had such high expectations of them. I really thought that we would be much further along the road to progress with a new superintendent and a restructured school system. No such luck. Rather than being an agent of change, this board has proved to be a voice for the status quo. Its low point was denying the Druid Hills Cluster Petition, especially for the reasons it cited. We’ve seen cityhood efforts spring up in Lakeside, Tucker, and Briarcliff and each successfully raise the $30,000 to fund the respective feasibility studies and we now conclude 2013 with an affirmative report in all three petitions. … While there may be some boundary issues, I am confident these will be resolved. We’ve come a long, long way this year.
[Regarding Cityhood] I cannot speak to the “genuineness” of Briarcliff or Lakeside, but I am convinced that Tucker’s is genuine. Discussions regarding a City of Tucker go back to a least 2006. We had numerous discussions and a feasibility showed that a City of Tucker was, indeed, viable. I have supported the efforts to become a city both personally and financially and since I am a senior citizen on a relatively fixed income, I would not support such a movement unless I felt it were genuine. I don’t know Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver’s intention nor do I know her motivations, but I do applaud her for listening to her constituents. From my perspective, the issue of genuineness is moot.
Second, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the thoughts about how to run a school system are too divergent, too different, and too varied for Dekalb County to have an effectively governed and managed school system. That is not to say that one approach is right and another is wrong. I simply think that a smaller district governed and managed by the people who live in that smaller district would bring more focus, more parent participation, and less controversy while also offering the best possibility of improving results. I think that I know the Tucker Community, I have seen it work together, and I know what the results have been. I’m convinced that we can be successful.
Third, the point made about a local community not “owning” the school buildings needs to be further substantiated if it is to be considered valid. Tucker dates back to 1821 and is, in fact, two years older than Decatur. Of seven brigades formed in DeKalb County during the Civil War, three were formed wholly from within Tucker. The town of Tucker built the initial and many of the subsequent versions of Tucker High School, Tucker Middle School, and Midvale. Those schools were built on property donated by Tucker residents and were also built by Tucker residents. The materials used to build those schools were donated by Cofer Brothers. Residents of Tucker have paid their fair share and probably much more than the average. I can tell you to the penny how much in school taxes I have paid over the past 39 years and it is huge, at least from my perspective. It would be very difficult to make a credible argument that those buildings do not rightly belong to the residents of Tucker.
Fourth, it will be difficult to get a Constitutional Amendment passed to allow the creation of new school districts. But I think that there is merit to the argument that the Georgia Amendment is contrary to the United States Constitution and there is some thought being given to challenging it. It is blatantly discriminatory to allow some cities to have their own school system while denying other cities the same privilege if they so choose. Constitutional Amendments should be broad guidelines for making laws and not be so specific as to address such minutia as limiting the number of school systems that can exist within a State. The DeKalb County of 2014 is far, far different from the DeKalb County of the 1940s when this Amendment was enacted. Why should Decatur be permitted to have its own school system and neither Tucker or any other constituency in DeKalb County be denied to do the same?
Fifth, the present DeKalb County School System’s recent leadership has been indicted and convicted for its corruption. Its governance has led us to the brink of losing our accreditation, an outcome that would devastate our students and especially those who are about to graduate. Graduation rates average 57.8% countywide. That is abysmal. It is very hard to believe that local governance and leadership could do any worse and probably could do much better. Simply put, the DCSS has failed our children and our residents for at least 10 years and that doesn’t seem to be changing much. We have had four superintendents in four years and there is simply no way that any sort of stability could have been possible. There have been two interims, and two full-time. Of the two full-time, one is convicted and the other left under a cloud of uncertainty and controversy. To this day, the DCSS is fighting our teachers in court. Is that any way to run a school system? We owe it to the students of today and tomorrow to provide them with a better school system that would enhance their probability of success in the future. I am convinced that the Druid Hills Cluster deserved the opportunity to at least try, but five of the members of the school board as well as the superintendent, none of which live in that community, decided that they were not worthy. Thurmond could not allow those funds to leave the County even though the County would no longer be educating the students who lived there. That vote was about the County retaining control and not much else. I was there and heard the discussion.
It is time to move on to a new and better day in DeKalb, one that is less corrupt, better managed, more focused on improving the lives of our children and all of our residents. I had hoped and expected so much from this new school board. I had hoped for new approaches, new ideas, and new directions. What we have had is more of the same and many in DeKalb County want better. I am hoping that the upcoming Legislative session will force new changes on the school board and its leadership that would allow for communities like Druid Hills and others to at least receive approval to try. I also hope that it will also force changes in the very structure of the school board itself. DeKalb County is too large, too populated, and too important to the economy of Georgia to leave the status quo in place.