Meeting Minutes, April 17, 2013

Emory LaVista Parent Council
April 17, 2013
State of DeKalb County School System
Coralwood Elementary School

Changes to the ByLaws previously posted on the website were approved.
Beth Laing, Chairperson of the nominating committee, presented the slate for the ELPC Executive Board, which was approved.

Guest Speaker: Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond

It is six weeks into Mr. Thurmond’s administration, and he is enjoying himself. This is an exciting time and for someone who has dedicated his life to public service, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. There are many challenges, but they are outweighed by the opportunities. We are laying the groundwork for a model 21st century school system. The greatest asset in our school system is the 99,000 children. Mr. Thurmond is beginning to fully appreciate the urge to be an educator because it is so exciting to be around the students. Mr. Thurmond has visited schools all over the county and has hosted town hall meetings where school system employees could ask questions.

Based on this, the school system has made the following good decisions:

1. Success for All Reading Program—There were concerns about how this program was selected. Mr. Thurmond re-surveyed the teachers to see if the program is good. Moving forward, the decision to use this program will be made on a school by school basis instead of district wide. It is not about one size fits all, but instead letting individual schools decide what is best for them.
2. Balanced Calendar—The implementation of the balanced calendar will be delayed at least until 2015 to have an opportunity to engage parents and other stakeholders. Whatever we do, it should be to enhance academic achievement. It is unclear if a balanced calendar does this.
3. Nature of Board meetings—thank you to Marshall Orson for leading the change in the way board meetings are structured to make them more efficient and effective.
4. Nepotism—Many people complained of nepotism in DCSS, so Mr. Thurmond researched DCSS policy and found that DCSS did not have a policy on nepotism. A new nepotism policy has been created and Mr. Thurmond is asking for citizen input.
5. Policy Changes—All new DCSS policies will have a period for public input.
6. FY2014 Budget—The School Board has developed parameters for the upcoming budget. Expenses are projected to go up $16 million due to unfunded mandates from the State legislature. Revenues will be flat. The projected deficit will be 2% of the budget. This is not as bad as some other counties. We can make better fiscal decisions, but some of the financial challenges are not specific to DeKalb. The Board was clear that the focus of DCSS should be on increasing resources to the classroom and instruction.
7. SACS Accreditation--There is a 26 person team working to prepare for the SACS visit in May. Mr. Thurmond is looking forward to it. SACS will find a district that learned from mistakes and moved on. It is not helpful to dwell on past mistakes. We need to learn from them and move on. Mr. Thurmond had a good meeting with Mark Elgart and there were no surprises. Mr Elgart indicated that it is unlikely that DCSS would lose accreditation at the end of the year. Loss of accreditation was the greatest threat when Mr. Thurmond joined DCSS.

Questions and Answers:

Q: Is it true that 8th graders at Henderson Middle School are taking CRCTs two weeks early since there is no money in the budget for summer school so all remediation needs to take place before school ends?
A: Where did the financial issues start—2000-2001 was the first year of revenue shortfall. This is an ongoing slow moving crisis that was not addressed for a decade. All staff has suffered for lack of resources. The economy and reduced funding from the state are not an excuse. We’re going to try to get out of this, but it won’t be in FY2014. It will be a long and difficult path to financial health, but the journey begins with a single step. Everyone who has had resources cut claims that they are the most important. For FY2014 we won’t spend $10 million on legal fees. Mr. Thurmond served notice on all attorneys that spending at that level will no longer happen. We need to build from bottom up. The Board sets the priorities. The #1 priority in FY2014 is classroom instruction. Everyone should attend budget meetings and voice their opinions.

Q: Teachers haven’t had a raise but salary ranges for central office staff have moved up. Can they be moved back? Look at people who are paid over the top of their salary range. Figure out why and see if it can be changed.
A: Good question. It is the narrative that DCSS has a bloated central office. The Board looked at the 14,000 employees and found that 6% work in the central office. Mr. Thurmond thought that number would be higher. Mr. Thurmond will present a list of who these employees are.

Q: Michael Burke from Safe Passage network is concerned about militarization of youth. Issues of Marine Corp. Academy. Asked Mr. Thurmond about his feelings on military in schools, not just high schools. We need to do something about the encroachment of the war industry on our classrooms.
A: Not sure about the definition of “militarization.” ROTC programs in high school are a good thing. Military is a career path that students and their parents need to consider. It’s up to the parent to supervise the child through this process. Mr. Thurmond does not have a problem with representatives of the military recruiting students.

Q: Will the new nepotism policy be retroactive? Also, the finances are supposed to be audited every three years, but this hasn’t been done since 2004. If Ernst and Young could find the 2004 audit it might identify the source of some of the current financial problems.
A: We can’t implement a policy retroactively. The new nepotism policy will be effective on the date it is passed.
Several audits have been done—some private, some by the state. Mr. Thurmond will look at all of them, but not right now. Now, he needs to get the budget done. This is a long term process. Even budget issues will take time. The new budget needs to be in place by July 1. Part of the strategic plan is what is far in the future. Every day Mr. Thurmond tries to make the district more successful at educating children.

Q: Of the 6% of the 14,000 employees (840), how many do we really need?
A: We are going to decentralize more authority to the school level. Even if the staffing level remains at 6%, they won’t be in the central office. Decisions are more effective when they are made closer to the delivery of the service. Decisions need to be made closer to schools, not at the headquarters.

Q: Lakeside principal selection—last time it was a disaster. We need the best principals.
A: Agreed. Mr. Thurmond spoke recently to two great principals—at Henderson Middle School and Fernbank Elementary. Both spoke of the importance of parental engagement. PTA studies show that every successful school has active parents. Most places where parents aren’t engaged are economically disadvantaged. Poor parents love their kids as much as wealthy parents, but don’t have the same resources.

Q: What are you going to do to get parents engaged?
A: You can encourage and inspire. We assume parents know that they should be involved. We are going to educate people from their own self interest to enlightened self interest—where they care about other people’s kids as well as their own. We can increase parental participation at low cost. We don’t need parents to be well educated; they just need to be present in the room. Being present is critical. We are going to transform how we do business.

Q: Parental involvement is better when parents have information. The March 20 school board meeting included a modular classroom lease extension of $15,870 per month for six months--$600/month/classroom. This is very expensive. Was the planning department aware that some trailers were recalled before they agreed to purchase more?
A: SPLOST has $2 million in ongoing projects. DCSS has trailers that we’ve been leasing for 20 years. They should have been purchased instead of leased. We finally have a plan to reduce trailers.

Q: If principals are great, trust them with staffing. If they say they will need more staff next year, let them hire those people now while they have the pick of the best talent. Waiting to staff until the first few weeks of school great diminishes the quality of the pool of prospective hires.
A: Last year DeKalb cut the budget by $90 million. We haven’t connected the budget staffing issues to lost revenue. We need more education about this. Until now, the Board didn’t make the school house its first priority.

Q: Can you direct your staff to put teachers in the school house?
A: Allotment meetings are next week and area superintendents will make sure there is staff.
Q: Trust feeder school numbers to identify how many students will move up to the next level school. We want to stop losing teachers and then having to rehire when we could have predicted number of students in an entering class of a middle or high school.
A: Mr. Thurmond heard that most of the hiring issues were driven by budget. If there was a way to save the budget, then it was done.

Q: Cell towers on school property—voters rejected construction of cell towers on school property. Did you know about opposition to cell towers and why did you sign permit for cell towers to be built?
A: DeKalb School Board voted to put towers on school property and they told the superintendent to sign the permit. It was the old board that directed that decision.

Q: Related to the staffing of school houses—we need a better way to check proof of residence.

Q: Since there is a new focus on the school house, will there be smaller class sizes?
A: No. Budget—class sizes have to be larger to save money.

Q: Looking at the DCSS employees and number of students, there are seven students for every employee. There are far too many non-teachers on payroll.
Also, concern that central office staff numbers will be reduced by changing budget categories without cutting people.
A: We won’t do things only to protect jobs. We will do things to enhance academic achievement. Judge me by me. I’m a different person than last year’s superintendent. Please focus on parental involvement. We need to get all parents involved. We need to care about all children, not just our own neighborhood.