Meeting Minutes, February 20, 2013

Emory LaVista Parent Council Meeting
February 20, 2013
Oak Grove Elementary School

Guest Speaker: Michael Thurmond, Interim Superintendent

This is Mr. Thurmond’s first Parent Council meeting as Interim Superintendent. He will work every minute of every day to get DeKalb County schools full accreditation. The key to educational success is excellent teachers, staff and school board members, but parents are the most important resource.

Mr. Thurmond recognizes that he is not an educator but he believes in the transformative power of public education. The temptation is to be overwhelmed by negativity, but deficit driven strategies rarely succeed. Our greatest assets are the students and parents. Mr. Thurmond asks that we give him a chance. The challenges are great, but the opportunities are greater.

Mr. Thurmond met with Mark Elgart of SACS yesterday and pledged to do whatever is necessary to regain full accreditation.

Questions and Answers

Q: Why not spend money on a forensic audit instead of Board training?
A: Mr. Thurmond is almost certain that he will request a forensic audit in the future. But he doesn’t want to rush into a decision based on what we think we know. Good leadership says to identify the problems first. We need to look at governance in the district from top to bottom. We need to develop a baseline for where we are. We will always have new Board members—governance is greater than any particular board. We need a governance plan.

Q: Please address the legal fees.
A: As an attorney, Mr. Thurmond hopes to unravel the long running cases that are killing us with legal fees. He intends to stop, close or settle cases that are eating up our budget. We’ve got enough lawyers.

Q: Will you commit to a forensic audit and make the results public?
A: Mr. Thurmond is committing to do everything necessary. Let him make an evaluation and decision. Give him a chance.

Q: What about teacher retention?
A: Mr. Thurmond is going to do everything possible to shift resources back to the classroom. His philosophy is that resources are best spent close to the recipient.

Q: Will he take a scalpel to the central office?
A: The central office exists to support the teachers and principals. It is an inverted pyramid with the superintendent sitting at the bottom.
Q: Why aren’t you listening to us about removing the existing board?
A: You are assuming that I am not listening. I am listening. The proof will be in the pudding.

Q: Who is your A-Team?
A: I haven’t decided yet. It is not Mr. Thurmond’s style to presuppose and fire everyone. He will have a team that includes parents. We will not undo ten years of mistakes eight days. He doesn’t want to slash and burn. The SACS report showed us symptoms of the problem. We need to identify the source of the problem. Mr. Thurmond will not presuppose about north DeKalb or south DeKalb. He will be objective and fair.

Q: What are your top three priorities, and do you intend to ask the Board to step down?
A: He does not intend to ask anyone to step down. That is not his role. Mr. Thurmond’s number one priority is full and unconditional accreditation. That is also priority number two and three.

Q; How can you speak for the Board at the State hearing?
A: Mr. Thurmond is speaking on behalf of the district, not the board.

Q: School Councils should pick principals.
A: Public input is good. Mr. Thurmond will look into it.

Q: The Board has hired more lawyers. Are they for the district or the Board? Who is paying for them?
A: Bob Wilson was already retained before Mr. Thurmond was hired. McKenna Long is not providing legal services—the district has hired the Governance Center operated by the law firm.

Q: Didn’t Sutherland have that governance experience?
A: We are spending too much money on lawyers. We want to do more in house.

Q: The quality and retention of teachers needs to be a priority.
A: We can’t use lack of resources as an excuse, but we’ve lost a lot of resources. I am going to try.

Q: It seems like we have nine de facto superintendents. The people who are supposed to give them information don’t give them what they need to make decisions. We need a scalpel.
A: Mr. Thurmond wants to leave things better than when he came. He won’t fix every problem, but he’ll do everything humanly possible to win full accreditation.

Q: We need to be one DeKalb.
A: Coalitions are hard. There has always been a north and south divide. Everyone is self interested and puts their own children first. We need enlightened self interest where we elevate interest beyond our own children.

Q: There is a conflict when you speak on behalf of the Board at the State hearing. When will we begin to educate our children? Our schools are failing our children every day.
A: We have to resolve the conflict and chaos among the School Board. Right now, seventy percent of Mr. Thurmond’s time is spent on SACS. We want to shift that majority of time to focus on educating children. Looking at the legislation, it appears that the Governor could appoint another board even if the elected board still exists. Potential for 18 School Board members.

Q: How can we help?
A: Acknowledge the successes. Positive reinforcement.

Q: I don’t think you understand the depth and breadth of mistrust and deception. It appears like you are saving the Board and are not worried about the school house.
A: Mr. Thurmond is not responsible for what happened in the past.

Q: We are tired of politicians spending tax payer money. We hear more rhetoric today. The superintendent’s salary should be commission based.
A: Mr. Thurmond sees his job as to correct mistakes made by voters in the past.

Q: How can we trust you to fix things if the Board stays the same? Filing the lawsuit was the tipping point because it showed us that the Board cares more about their position than about the children.
A: Give me an opportunity to succeed.

Q: Will you have a town hall forum for teachers?
A: I will sit down with bus drivers and cafeteria workers too. Everyone is important.

Representative Scott Holcomb

Representative Holcomb agrees that we need to resolve the chaos around the School Board by removing the Board. These are worrisome times. The crisis is caused by the Board, and the Board doesn’t understand that. The lawsuit made him furious. Mr. Thurmond was hired by the Board and shouldn’t defend the Board. The Governor will solicit input from the DeKalb delegation and community to appoint a new Board. Representative. Holcomb is sympathetic to the three newly elected Board members. If the Court prevents the Governor from removing the School Board, we have a mess and we don’t know where things will go. We cannot lose accreditation, and Representative Holcomb will do anything to help.

Q: What are the legal steps?
A: There are several possible scenarios. There is an argument that the statute is unconstitutional because school boards should be selected at the local level. If that issue goes before a judge today, a judge could stop the hearing. But even if it isn’t brought before a judge today, the court can act later and enjoin the recommendation of the Governor to replace the Board. So the whole thing will play out in court. This creates a very bad perception—it looks like it is about self preservation for the Board.

Q: If the Court delays the decision, will SACS delay pulling accreditation?
A: We don’t know. There is the distinct possibility that we will be stuck with this Board.

Q: Can the Legislature look at the State to take over accreditation?
A: The State has no money so it’s hard to develop a new capacity to accredit, but it’s an interesting idea. The SACS report may be imperfect, but Representative Holcomb agrees with a lot of it.

David Schutten: Organization of DeKalb Educators, which is the local branch of the National Education Association.

At the last Board meeting, Mr. Schutten went on record that people will be mad if tax money is used to file a lawsuit on behalf of the Board. This is exactly what happened. Business people need to pressure the Board members to step down. Mr. Thurmond didn’t have a vote on hiring the attorney. Dr. Atkinson took a scalpel to the central office, and the Board attacked her. Dr. Lewis got rid of School Councils hiring principals. Parents asked the best questions during interview of candidates for principal. Beware of bloggers. Anonymous bloggers are wearing the white robes of the 21st century.

Dr. Howard Grant: Executive Director of the Atlanta Board of Education

Your goal needs to be to save accreditation. The second goal should be to ensure that all schools in the county are quality. Ways Atlanta got through the accreditation challenge:
1. Stakeholders need to drive the system.
2. The School Board made a conscious decision to work together.

Constructive introspection is needed. Parents, stakeholders and the community pressured school board members to do the right thing. Dr. Grant recommends that there be an outside accountability entity. Atlanta created an audit commission and an ethics commission. Atlanta has a superintendent with a non-traditional background.