The six new members of the DeKalb County school board have backgrounds in business, education and, maybe just as importantly, mediation. Now, they must use their skills to save the state’s third-largest system from losing accreditation.
Gov. Nathan Deal appointed the six Wednesday, and they were immediately sworn in amid favorable comments from relieved parents. The board members, mostly new to DeKalb’s rough-and-tumble politics, are tasked with resolving complaints of mismanagement, infighting and nepotism brought by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
“We’re excited that there is a new set of eyes looking at the dysfunction in this county,” said Julie McKenna, whose teenage daughter started an online petition urging Deal to remove the old board.
The new members are John Coleman of District 1 (the district of suspended board member Nancy Jester), Michael Erwin of District 3 (Sarah Copelin-Wood), David Campbell of District 5 (Jesse “Jay” Cunningham), Joyce Morley of District 7 (Donna Edler), Karen Carter of District 8 (Pam Speaks) and Thad Mayfield of District 9 (Eugene Walker).
Hours after Deal’s announcement, five of them — Morley was out of town — placed their left hands together on a Bible and swore their oath with one voice. That act alone may have delighted SACS, which placed DeKalb on probation in December partly because the old board squabbled too much in public.
Deal suspended the six last month and acted quickly in replacing them. Just a week earlier, his five-member nominating panel received the last of 403 applications and began a marathon vetting session. The speedy process lifts a legal stalemate on the school board, whose three other members were too few for a voting quorum.
Deal and his aides rejected higher-profile candidates, including a former state superintendent, ex-lawmakers and education policy experts. The governor said he wanted “fresh faces” to bring new perspective to the contentious board. He said he’s tasking his appointees with ensuring “they get the DeKalb County school board out of this jeopardy.”
Kenneth Mason, chairman of the nominating panel, said he and his colleagues hope the new board members can bring “unity” to DeKalb. He said the selection committee was “amazed” by the group’s potential and their collective experience.
Deal tapped people who are relatively unknown among parent activists and system leaders.
“It’s not a who’s who of politicians — which is good,” said state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur. “The group looks very good on paper.”
The new board members come largely from the business and academic sectors. Three are business managers, two are college academics, one in the area of business. Another is a counselor and mediator. One has a child in the school system, another is expecting a child. Three have grown kids who graduated from DeKalb schools, and one has no children.
Erwin is the lone new board member with a child in the system, plus a toddler. “I want to make sure they get the best education they can get,” he said, explaining why he applied for the $18,000-a-year position.
Campbell, whose daughter graduated from Stephenson High, said he hopes to use his accounting and “team-building” skills “to be a part of change here.”
Deal, traditionally wary of intervening in local matters, now owns responsibility for the school system’s future. He suspended the six elected board members out of fear that they would cost the 99,000-student system its accreditation, affecting graduates’ college opportunities and damaging metro Atlanta’s economy.
While some celebrated the move, others accused the governor of overstepping.
His new board members will serve through 2014 when the seats are up for election, barring a couple of possible short circuits: The ousted members can still petition Deal for their jobs back, and a lawsuit they filed challenging the 2011 law Deal used to suspend them is working through the courts. A federal judge refused to restrain Deal, but wants the Georgia Supreme Court to consider constitutional questions.
Concerns about race loomed over the deliberations. Leaders of the NAACP called the Republican governor a “dictator” who disenfranchised a majority-black and Democrat county’s voters by removing their elected board members.
“We’ve got a board now that does not represent the people of DeKalb,” said Ed DuBose, president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP. “It represents the governor of Georgia.”
Deal accused his critics of caring more about race than the academic future of DeKalb’s students. The nominating committee made clear it was considering race and diversity, and the appointments reflect the same composition as before: Of the six new members, five are black.
Marcia Coward, the president of the DeKalb County Council of PTAs, said she “exhaled” with relief when the governor made the announcement. Coward, who is black, said the makeup of the board averted racial acrimony, so the focus can shift to children.
“All of the noise is out of the way,” she said.
Many observers are optimistic that the six relatively unknown newcomers will be able to work with the three elected members to confront the district’s mounting challenges, such as a deficit that topped $14 million last fiscal year.
Their lack of familiarity could prove challenging as they catch up with concerns of teachers and administrators, but Dave Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, sees their outsider status as a boon.
“I’m happy that nobody is a former employee of the school system,” Schutten said, noting how SACS alleged widespread nepotism. “It’s good that nobody appears to have close relatives working at the school system.”
School board chairman Melvin Johnson, a retired DeKalb schools administrator, said he didn’t know most of the appointees, but was looking forward to working with them – and right away. He expects to call a formal board meeting next week.
“I’m happy to know that help is on the way,” he said. “We will not, under any circumstances, allow our accreditation to be lost.”
After the new board members were sworn in, they spoke about the challenges ahead and the need to rebuild trust.
“Getting off probation is clearly a milestone that we have to address quickly,” said Mayfield, who now represents a superdistrict covering roughly the western half of the county. “But that’s not the end goal. The end goal is making this an elite school system.”
Faye Andresen, a longtime parent activist who applied for a board spot and made the short list, doesn’t know much about Deal’s picks. But she said she did know this: It was essential for the community to support them.
“If the people of DeKalb County refuse to accept this board, I don’t know where we go from there,” Andresen said. “Put grandma on top of the car and leave.”
Staff writers Nancy Badertscher and Jeffry Scott contributed to this article.
Here’s a look at the six people Gov. Nathan Deal picked to serve on the DeKalb County school board. This is based on information from the candidates, the governor’s office and AJC staff searches of websites and public documents.
Education: Master’s degrees in business administration and public administration, Harvard.
Work experience: strategic planning manager, Invesco since 2012; manager, McKinsey & Company from 2005-2007 and 2010-2012.
Personal: He and his wife expecting their first child; member of various nonprofit boards. Grew up in Columbus, Ga., did undergraduate work at Berry College, Rome. Lived in Atlanta 2005-2007 and since 2010.
Michael Erwin, 42
Education: Ph.D., biological science, University of South Carolina; Master’s degree, biological science, North Carolina Central University; bachelor’s degree, biology, North Carolina Central University.
Work experience: assistant professor, Georgia Gwinnett College since 2009; research assistant, Duke University Medical Center and the University of South Carolina; previously worked for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Services.
Personal: two children, one who attends Montessori school; U.S. Navy veteran.
Education: degree in business administration, Albany State University
Work experience: senior manager Georgia Power Co., been with company 30 years; lobbyist at Georgia Public Service Commission, 2000-2008; previously worked as a certified public accountant.
Personal: Lifelong Georgia resident born in Albany; divorced; past member, DeKalb 100 Black Men; member, St. Philip AME; current member, Stone Mountain High School Council; treasurer, Dekalb Police Alliance; daughter graduated from Stephenson High School.
Address: Stone Mountain
Education: Ph.D. in counseling, family and worklife, University of Rochester; specialist’s and master’s degrees in counseling education, State University New York; bachelor’s degree, elementary education, SUNY College at Genesco.
Work experience: chief executive officer, Morley and Associates; counselor; trained mediator; served on local and national governance boards. On twitter (Dr. Joyce Morley@DrJoyceTheLuvDr), describes herself as an author, radio/TV show personality; motivational/keynote speaker, psychotherapist; relationship expert; executive/relationship/life coach. Has been consultant for Georgia Center for Nonprofits, U.S. Department of Education, and Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice. Been guest and contributor on radio and TV programs ranging from CNN to WVEE-V103, according to her website.
Personal: Has lived in DeKalb County 22 years; children graduated from DeKalb County schools.
Address: Lakeside community
Education: bachelor’s degree, speech communications, Denison University; law degree, Ohio State University.
Work experience: chairwoman, business and social science department, Georgia Perimeter College; former classroom teacher.
Personal: graduate, Leadership DeKalb; community volunteer.
Education: Master’s degree, business administration, Mercer University, 1995; bachelor’s degree, political science, Tougaloo College, near Jackson, Miss., 1977.
Work experience: Worked with AT&T and Lucent about 18 years. In 1999 founded FOCOM, Inc., business development firm. In 2004 became a senior partner in the firm, which he describes as a microbusiness with him and two part-time employees.
Personal: His two children attended DeKalb County schools — son graduated in 1993, daughter in early 2000s; co-chairman, Friends of DeKalb Education SPLOST IV Campaign. Considers himself a perennial volunteer. Active in school system since 1995. Lived in Georgia since 1984.
The story so far
After DeKalb County’s school system was placed on probation by an accrediting agency, Gov. Nathan deal suspended six of the nine members. On Tuesday, six replacement DeKalb members were sworn in.
Board chairman Melvin Johnson is expected to call the first meeting of the new board next week. He’ll also be arranging training for the new members. The suspended board members will be busy, too, deciding whether to petition Deal to get their seats back. They can file requests later this month. Meanwhile, a lawsuit they filed against Deal is making its way through the courts. U.S. District Judge Richard Story set a deadline today for the two sides to submit questions to him for the Georgia Supreme Court to consider.