Meeting Minutes, September 17, 2013

Emory LaVista Parent Council
September 17, 2013
Druid Hills High School

Guest Speaker: Superintendent Michael Thurmond

Thank you to ELPC for its support of DeKalb County Schools.
Political Representatives: Senator Mary Margaret Oliver, Brad Bryant, State Representative Scott Holcomb, School Board Member Marshal Orson

This was one of the smoothest school openings in recent years. It is Mr. Thurmond’s 7 month anniversary at DCSD. Most public officials don’t get it when it comes to public schools. Every political official should spend a day in a public school.

When Mr. Thurmond started we had a $14.7 million deficit for FY 2012. He implemented a deficit reduction plan and we no longer have a deficit. We have a balanced budget for FY2013 and have $9.5 million fund balance for a rainy day. In FY2012 we had less than $100,000 fund balance but we should have $50-60 million fund balance for a district of our size.
In December 2012 DCSD was placed on probably by SACS. There were 11 action items that had to be addressed. In May we had a midterm evaluation by SACS. There was significant and noteworthy progress on every action item. This means we received straight A’s on our midterm exam, but the final exam is in December.
Mr. Thurmond is confident that we won’t be on probation in December because we will do everything SACS required.
We made a $5.8 million investment in textbooks this year for math and also sent 10,000 textbooks for rebinding. We are digging our way out of a deep hole. We won’t be able to correct everything in one budget cycle but we are moving in the right direction.
Bus service—this was the number one complaint when Mr. Thurmond started. He committed that when the school year ended in May it would be transformed by August.
The big focus now is on parent engagement. We misinterpret lack of engagement as lack of love. Non participation by families isn’t about love. There may be other baggage. So we need to build capacity.
Bridge Initiative—Often, when we try to talk about achievement, we get hung up on race. In DeKalb, race is always a subtext. But when we look at the data, achievement isn’t about race. Upper income African American kids meet or exceed standards. Low income white kids don’t meet standards. Of course, this is all averages. Some low income kids do extremely well. Some affluent kids don’t.
Key indicators for success are parent engagement and teacher quality. We blame the students for failure to meet standards, but it’s not them. It’s the adults. We can’t blame kids when it’s the educational strategies that don’t work. If parents don’t come to meetings at the school house, we need to figure out something different. Mr. Thurmond didn’t create all of the problems, but he made them his own when he became superintendent.
The Bridge Initiative will realign resources to change outcomes. We have $75 million in federal dollars to help economically disadvantaged children. These resources are spread around. It’s not that we don’t have enough money. The issue is that adults have agendas that are more important to them than outcomes for children.
The children that need the most help generally don’t have parents that attend ELPC meetings. We need to build a bridge for students and parents we’ve never met, who don’t show up at PTA meetings, or, if they do show up, don’t speak the language. That is public education in the 21st century. It is about helping other people’s children to do better.

Questions and Answers
Q: Are there plans to review placement of counselors at high schools? Currently, each high school has 4 counselors whether it has 1300 students or 2000 students.
A: Counselors took a big hit in the budget. We are looking at strengthening the Pathways Program for career readiness. Counselors will play a big role in this. We will probably need to increase the number of counselors and their training. Only 20% of students in DCSD go to four year liberal arts school after graduation. Counselors need to serve the other 80% too. We are looking at establishing a Career Academy in DCSD with multiple pathways to success. “It’s not the color of the collar, it’s the green in the dollar.” We have $1 million in seed money for a career academy. We are applying for $3 million in grant money.
Q: Are tutors only available at Title I schools? How do students get tutors?
A: All schools provide tutorial. Go to the school counselor or principal.
Q: Problems with Facility Management. We need more resources. Work orders are not completed. Oak Grove Elementary has had a leaking roof in the cafeteria since May.
A: Mr. Thurmond directed Mr. Wilkerson to handle the matter.
Follow up questions: this is a district wide problem, not a single incident at a single school.
A: There is a plan in place.
Q: The AJC alluded to a directive that DCSD is taking power out of the central office. What is this about?
A: Mr. Thurmond made the decision to empower regional superintendents and principals. Decisions closer to a problem are most effective. So regional superintendents will work more closely with principals now. Principals didn’t used to report to regional supers, they used to report to the Deputy Director.
Q: Where did the money come from for reducing the deficit without reallocating the aftercare money away from the schools?
A: There were funding sources that weren’t being taken advantage of. Now they are. Central office reductions resulted in $13 million savings.
Q: Schools are doing better, but central office hasn’t been cut enough.
A: Central office supports the schools. Progress at schools equals progress at the central office. Problems are not just from the last school board. They go back decades. It is important to keep things in chronological perspective.
Q: What went wrong with Parent Portal?
A: 6000 teachers have to complete something in parent portal. 300 teachers didn’t do it, and the grades of their students were deleted. DCSD staff have worked with teachers to get the grades back in the system.
Q: What are specific actions we can take to help with the Bridge Initiative?
A: See a new way. Step back from the edge. Move away from the issue of North vs. South. The north/south divide predates current racial demographics. When Columbia High School was majority white, there was still friction between it and North DeKalb. Now the divide is more volatile because of race.
Q: Tell us about plans to change ESIS?
A: Ramona Tyson answered. It’s a very complicated program. We don’t want to change often. When we implemented ESIS we did a RFP and a bidding process. Currently, ESIS has been bought by a competitor, Pierson. Pierson is now the dominant force in the market. They bought everything. Pierson has eliminated the ESIS program and support. So ESIS will be ending because the support will end. So we have to get a new system.
Lessons learned from ESIS:
1. We need to know how much training new product will require.
2. We need to invest more time on training before we migrate to the new system.
3. We need to run both systems parallel until we make a complete migration.
4. Training shouldn’t stop. We need to continue training each year until we fully utilize all elements of the program.
Gary Brantley put out a RFP for a new system in May and received responses in June. There were seven total responses. Two were eliminated because they didn’t meet purchasing guidelines. Then only two passed through the next set of criteria. These two responses were shared with PTAs and other stakeholders.
Q: Are there plans to get nurses back to middle and high schools?
A: It’s about money and priorities.
Q: What do you look to as a model for DeKalb?
A: We need to honestly and forthrightly attempt to solve major issues facing public education today.
Q: Why do we have so many central office employees making $150,000 and more?
A: I don’t know if this is above market. Class size is a budget issues. We had to eliminate the deficit, balance the budget and bring back an emergency fund. Then we can deal with class size. Cars –voters approved the purchase of cars—it was SPLOST money.
Q: Expenses for McKenna Long Aldridge?
A: The three month contract ran its term. MLA played an important role in the success of the school district.
Q: Bridge Initiative—isn’t it putting the cart before the horse?
A: The Bridge Initiative grew out of the 90 day plan.
Q: Could you give us an update on dual accreditation?
A: The Board voted that February 2015 will be the time to look at dual accreditation. SACS was the first priority. Once we are off probation, we can look at dual accreditation.
Q: How do we report a breakdown in facilities management? Principals don’t receive a response.
A: Principals need to report problems. $450,000 was saved by not leasing trailers. Now, we own 300 trailers instead of leasing them.
Q: The budget for books is too low.
A: Last year, the budget for books was zero.
Q: When will schools get their aftercare funds back?
A: We didn’t take the funds. After care funds were never on DCSD books. Mr. Thurmond discovered and revealed this. Then the public accused him of applying the after care funds to the DCSD budget. 90% of after care funds go to the schools. 10% goes to the administration to oversee the program. No audits had been done of the after care funds or process. Mr. Thurmond is hiring an outside auditor to audit the program. The Board asked Mr. Thurmond to make a policy to oversee the program and funds. Not one dime of the 90% designated for schools has been spent. But we need to make sure the money is accounted for properly.
Q: When are you going to bring in top personnel?
A: I already have them. The problem wasn’t the people, it was the manager. Everyone is important. Not everyone will agree, but that’s OK. We don’t need 100% approval, just a majority.
Q: Lakeside High School has 4 counselors for 2000 students. This means one counselor for 500 students.
A: We’ll continue to look at it and make it better.
Q: The ratio at Lakeside is not right.
A: Dr. Pringle, Area Superintendent, answered: The state does not define counselor ratios. Three extra counselors were offered to start the school year. Instructional Justification Form starts the process to get additional counselors. Dr. Pringle and Mr. Clyne will work on this tomorrow.
Q: Follow up: This has been a problem for a long time. How come it hasn’t already been fixed?
A: There are big problems, staff cuts, bad management. All of those things are being fixed now. We can’t do everything today, but Mr. Thurmond will listen and prioritize.
Q: Will you use local dollars to make up for lack of federal funds for counselors at Lakeside?
A: It’s about triage. Dr. Pringle and Mr. Clyne will work on a counselor for Lakeside. “I won’t always tell you what you want to hear, but I will tell you.” “By the time I walk out of this job I’ll be the most unliked man in the county, but the schools will be better.”