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DeKalb seeks school chief amid many pressures

Annexation. Incorporation. Charter schools.

People are trying anything to get away from the DeKalb County School District.

The foundering faith in Georgia’s third largest school system stems from years of mismanagement and scandal, and observers expect the situation to either stabilize or deteriorate depending upon whom the school board selects as its next superintendent.

The school board’s search for a successor has already bogged down in a disagreement over process, though; they haven’t even started vetting actual candidates.

The current chief, Michael Thurmond, has brought a measure of calm, but his contract expires on June 30.

The movements to Balkanize the district through annexation or other means could accelerate if the board fails to conduct a transparent selection that attracts a strong leader, said Allyson Gevertz, a parent. “I think, if they get it wrong, it’s over,” she said. “Druid Hills is gone. Dunwoody is going to figure out a way to be gone.”

Across DeKalb, residents are pushing to incorporate like Dunwoody has. Under current law, they are still served by the county schools, but some residents and political leaders want to abolish the state constitutional prohibition on creating new city school districts. Rather than fight that uphill battle, residents in Druid Hills are proposing to simply be annexed into Atlanta and be absorbed by its school system, after DeKalb rejected their petition to operate seven schools under a charter.

The new city of Brookhaven had its own novel detour around the constitution: the city tried to create a charter school overseen by the city council. (The state charter commission rejected the proposal.)

If these movements succeed, there will be less money for the students left behind. New school systems within DeKalb would get tax revenue that currently goes into the county district’s budget, and much of the new-schools movement is in wealthier areas.

The breakaway fervor is driven by the district’s history of fraud that brought the criminal conviction of a former chief operating officer and the misdemeanor obstruction plea of a former superintendent, financial deficit, bitter school board squabbling and an accreditation crisis that prompted the governor to replace most board members.

Thurmond, appointed in early 2013, was a novel pick, since he had no experience as a public school administrator. He did have leadership experience though, having run both the Georgia Department of Labor and the state Division of Family and Children Services. He said last year that he will not seek a contract extension. He stabilized the district’s accreditation and restored financial solvency. School board meetings have been relatively civil, too, and rarely attract the kind of jeering and boisterous crowds that were common before his arrival.

But there have still been disagreements, including recent difficulties over the selection of a firm to help find a superintendent. It can take months to recruit a leader. It took Atlanta about a year to find Meria Carstarphen. Those involved say DeKalb still has time, though, despite the difficulty getting to the starting line.

“The process for hiring a search firm did not go as smoothly as we would all have liked,” said board member Marshall Orson, who believes this will be the most important superintendent pick in decades.

Only four firms responded to a nationwide solicitation, including the district’s law firm (seen by some as a conflict of interest since they’d be helping to hire their next boss), the search firm that landed Thurmond’s controversial predecessor and a firm that had been fired by Atlanta.

The DeKalb board started all over again, and district staff contacted well over a hundred firms to urge them to submit applications. Only one did: PROACT Search, the outfit that had been fired by the Atlanta school board.

With its options exhausted and time running out, DeKalb hired the company.

Now comes a disagreement over procedure: Parents and some board members have been pushing for a community role while other board members have resisted the idea.

Recently, the leader of the county government stepped in. DeKalb CEO Lee May told school board members that he, too, endorsed empanelling a search committee and volunteered to serve on it.

He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he worries about what could happen if the board loses public confidence. “We don’t want the process to be tainted or questioned,” he said. “As much as we can get it right on the front end, we’ll have less drama and issues on the back end.”

There was plenty of drama during the search for Thurmond’s predecessor. There were allegations of leaks from private meetings as vying factions sought to influence the outcome. One top candidate withdrew when her name surfaced publicly. Ultimately, the board settled on Cheryl Atkinson, the superintendent of a tiny, low-achieving district in Ohio.

She lasted a year and a half in DeKalb.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver credited Thurmond with defusing tensions since those fiery times, but said his administration undermined that progress by rejecting the Druid Hills charter schools cluster petition. The Decatur Democrat worries about a return to the polarizing politics of the past.

“I think this is an incredibly important time for DeKalb,” she said. “Are we going to backslide again?”

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