DeKalb School Board Problems Illustrate Need For Choice

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

On Friday the DeKalb County School System was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.  SACS parent organization, AdvancED, issued a report blasting the governance by DeKalb’s school board, with president Mark Elgart telling reporters “This is not a governing body. What it is is nine individuals who have political interests who are focused on ensuring that those political interests are managed by the staff in accordance to their requests.  They fail at many levels to govern effectively.”

The downgrade to probation status by SACS puts DeKalb in jeopardy of losing its accreditation over the next year if significant changes in governance are not made.  The City of Atlanta schools spent much of 2011 under probation as well.  Clayton County, to DeKalb’s south, lost its accreditation in 2008.  While accreditation was restored in 2011, Clayton also recently was sent a warning letter by SACS, indicating that its troubles are not necessarily over.

DeKalb is the largest of the three troubled systems and the third largest school system in the state, serving just under 100,000 students.  According to DeKalb School’s website, 88% of the student population is non-white.

The geography of the three neighboring school systems which have received much attention from SACS makes it difficult to ignore the racial component in dealing with the politics of the situation.  A law enacted in 2011 in response to the Clayton loss of accreditation requires the State School Board to hold a hearing within 30 days to determine if the board should be replaced.  They will deliver a recommendation to Governor Deal, who would decide if the board should be replaced.  The Governor and State School Superintendent are white Republicans.  DeKalb represents an African American population which is heavily Democratic. 

The politics of the situation are delicate to say the least.  In Atlanta, the Governor worked hand in hand with Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed to present a united political front across racial and partisan lines.  It remains to be seen if a similar coalition can be developed to pressure the DeKalb board to change.

Delicate, however, does not mean there is not political will within the counties affected to fix problems of governance within their school systems.  One of the biggest surprises of the November elections in Georgia was how the Charter Schools Amendment was passed.  While much of the attention (and handwringing) was focused on suburban Atlanta counties dominated by Tea Party groups, the Amendment was largely won by capturing the rank and file African American vote.

71% of Clayton County voters approved of the Charter School Amendment.  64% of DeKalb voters did the same.  While many leaders opposed the measure, voters seem to understand what SACS is becoming increasingly concerned with in Georgia schools.  School boards are increasingly focused on internal political battles and self-serving agendas and are focused less and less on delivering a quality education for the student populations which they serve.

The problems illustrated with DeKalb’s school board put a bookend to 2012’s focus on education and school boards at the local level.  The first major agenda item tackled by the Georgia General Assembly this year was debate and eventual passage of the Charter School Amendment.  There was much debate from late summer into fall over the proper level of “local control” with respect to governance and establishment of charter schools.

Ultimately, 59% of Georgians decided there needs to be an alternative.  School choice is once again a reality in Georgia for families who wish to chart an educational path other than what their local board of education is willing to offer.

There remain many areas of Georgia with solid school systems and little appetite for Charter Schools.  It’s quite telling, however, that the systems with problems of board governance were the areas which voted most in favor of another option.  In November, school choice was an issue that had no color barrier.


  1. Nick Chester says:

    This article continues the constant and continued drumbeat to do away with local boards of education and local control. And eventually if you degrade and demonize those who work in public education enough, you will eventually get your wish.

    There are about 180 school districts in Georgia. City districts, County districts, rural, suburban and urban school districts. Yet we all seem to be lumped in with those few areas that seem unable or unwilling to perform their elected jobs. This seems to always be exhibit A for those that want to reform the entire educational system but they seem to forget about the mass of State and Federal education mandates that districts labor under. They also seem to forget that the vast majority of school districts are outside of metro Atlanta and have little or nothing to do with Metro Atlanta problems.

    “School boards are increasingly focused on internal political battles and self-serving agendas and are focused less and less on delivering a quality education for the student populations which they serve.”

    • bgsmallz says:


      Fair point…you can’t judge one local school system by the other. But let’s be clear on who is doing the disservice to public education in this instance because it isn’t anyone asking for reforms. It is the DeKalb BOE. Period. It’s that kind of $1 Billion annual loss of trust that makes people yearn for school choice. If you are upset about the picture that is being painted b/c of their actions, be upset with them and appalled over their lack of decency and fidelity to their elected duties to 100,000 children and how that affects the perception of school systems at large…don’t be upset that those affected by these action are looking for answers and reforms.

      From the SACS report:

      “Interviews with staff indicate that there exists a culture of fear. These staff members referenced how they were fearful of retribution by the Board if their statements or comments could be connected to them. During one interview, the person interviewed broke into tears and repeatedly stated that he/she was fearful to say anything. He/she indicated that he/she and his/her staff consistently receive communication and direction from members of the Board who issue directives and require status updates related to work being done in his/her department. Numerous staff members indicated that this culture of fear and Board interference was negatively impacting their work and the effective operation of the school system.”


      “Board members individually communicate with various stakeholders as evidenced by their visits to schools and emails to school personnel, district personnel, and members of the community. This steady flow of frequent and largely inappropriate communication limits the time for school and district staff to provide optimal service to students. The Board spends an inordinate amount of time on adult issues and little to no time communicating or voicing support of the educational vision and mission of the system. A review of the board meetings provided little evidence of the Board’s concern for the academic well-being of the district’s students and a constant focus on the adults serving the system.”

      Just appalling.

    • UpHere says:

      Nick: Keep doing good work in Paulding and this would never affect you. But, it does affect kids in DeKalb in a horrible way. What do you tell those parents in DeKalb? Sorry you don’t live in Paulding?!

      Parents provide both the capital and the commodity and should have educational choice regardless if you want them to have it or not. It is not a drumbeat to get rid of local control; it is a drumbeat for school boards to be more responsive to what their constituents deserve.

      We have choice in every aspect of our lives these days. Gone are the days of Ma Bell and 3 channels on TV and one grocery store in town. The education establishment still thinks that one size fits all when it just doesn’t anymore.

    • Bob Loblaw says:

      Please. Clayton and DeKalb are the only two systems that SACS has either had to take away accreditation or, as in this case, produce an appalling report that looks like it could happen again.

      As long as the Educrats continue to pursue the kind of policies and protectionism that these borderline criminals in these counties are shielded by, students will come second.

      Birds of a feather.

  2. SallyForth says:

    Good article, Charlie. As much as I am opposed to state-run neighborhood schools, I am even more opposed to the corruption of the Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton school systems. Let’s just hope the Legislature writes implementing law concerning the issue of choice that will allow counties with good systems to continue functioning, while at the same time cleaning up the messes of the dysfunctional county systems.

  3. bgsmallz says:

    More fun from SACS:

    “Most stakeholders were unaware that the Board had established a $25 million line of credit for the purchase of new textbooks and had borrowed approximately $12 million from the line to pay for past textbook purchases. This was surprising to nearly every school level staff person and stakeholder interviewed. Furthermore, school level staff commented that they had not received any new textbooks and that school personnel had to supply glue and other materials to repair their own textbooks for students because of a lack of funds for said repairs. The board chair stated that he did not know if the books that were purchased with the borrowed money ever reached the classroom. The team could not find any evidence that new textbooks were ever received.”


    (One Point Twenty-One GIGAWATS!!!!)

    Thanks, Charlie for bringing attention to this. Only 20 years ago, DeKalb had one of the top school systems in the state…it’s galling to see how quickly that can dissolve, but I’m confident that we can make it better once the Gov. cleans house with the board.

    If anyone wants to go down the rabbit hole, I suggest reading this article, the link to the full SACS report, and/or the highlights from the comments below.

    • I know at least 2 of the incoming board members did boot out incumbents this Summer, but the terms don’t start until the new year. Somebody else I think retired – so that’s a start right there (this is in DeKalb).

  4. Betsy Parks says:

    I’ve started the petition “Governor Nathan Deal and Georgia State Board of Education: Review SACS findings, if accurate REPLACE the Dekalb County School Board. ” and need your help to get it off the ground.

    Will you take 30 seconds to sign it right now?
    Please share with your friends!

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