This is what DeKalb school district Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond signed up for.
Standing in front of a room of unhappy people that have an ocean of issues.
As Thurmond tries to repair the shipwreck that is the DeKalb school district, he must also deal with the ripple effects that come when the governor removes six board members from a board that’s already had its share of problems.
One of them is people — or entire cities — trying to jump ship.
Thurmond spoke to Dunwoody residents Sunday night to address their concerns and, possibly, fend off any desire to break away from DeKalb and start their own independent school district.
About 100 people filled a small meeting room at a Dunwoody racquet and swim club. At times throughout the gathering, frustration hung over the audience like a fog.
And Thurmond apparently came prepared for it. He told the crowd that two people warned him about talking to the people in Dunwoody.
“That’s all?” a woman in the audience quipped.
Thurmond spent most of the hour-long meeting talking about issues other than Dunwoody seceding from the district. Yet that issue sat out there, as if it was the elephant in the room.
Then, one man in the audience referenced it, referring to it as “new efforts” in exploring other education options. He asked Thurmond for his thoughts.
Thurmond handled the question deftly, saying parents have to do what’s best for their children and that, if they chose to pursue a new district in Dunwoody or move their children elsewhere, he would be the “last one on the face of this earth” to convince them otherwise.
His task at hand, Thurmond said, was to focus on educating the children in DeKalb’s school district and fixing the problems before him.
“We have to accept full responsibility for it,” Thurmond said. “The children did nothing wrong. This is an adult mess.”
The idea to start a school district for Dunwoody residents has been brewing for months. The Dunwoody Homeowners Assocation, which hosted Sunday’s meeting, has publicly supported legislation that has been put forth that would allow cities to form their own districts.
It’s the latest in the school choice movement that is taking shape across the country and, more recently, in Georgia. Parents are taking greater control over where their children attend school.
The unrest in Dunwoody comes in response to the woes of the school district, which, in just the past few months, has been placed on suspension by its accrediting agency, removed its superintendent and had six of its nine school board members removed by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Now DeKalb’s school district is desperately trying not to become another Clayton County school district, which lost its accreditation in 2008 and still has not fully recovered. Students, their families and teachers alike fled the county in search of a stable school district. Property values dropped, and the school district lost millions in school funding.
Thurmond, the former Georgia lawmaker who went on to become the state labor commissioner, was hired to be part of the solution. One month into the job, he’s been making the rounds, speaking to various groups in communities throughout DeKalb.
The audience in Dunwoody peppered Thurmond with questions. They asked about the district’s spending on legal bills. They asked about hiring freezes. They asked if Thurmond was going to listen to them.
Thurmond gave all the right answers: Spending on lawsuits is too high and needs to be fixed; hiring freezes for teachers is just a rumor; and, yes, he’s there’s to listen.
In the end, Thurmond asked the group to give him a shot.
“At least give me a chance,” he said. “I’m not going to let you down.”
But, for some, it might be too little, too late.
Doug Silverman, 40, a father of two, said he is in favor of creating a new district in Dunwoody.
“So far, to this point, I’ve pretty much lost hope and fully support a Dunwoody school district,” he said.
Losing Dunwoody, one of the most affluent areas of DeKalb County, would prove costly to the school district. An economics professor from the University of Georgia reported recently that Dunwoody residents pay for 15 percent of school property taxes in DeKalb, but only account for an estimated 7 to 8 percent of the students in the school system.
If Dunwoody moves forward with creating its own district, it will take some time. The state constitution limits the number of school districts in Georgia, so the constitution would have to be amended to allow more. That issue likely wouldn’t get on the ballot until November 2014, according to media reports.
In that case, Thurmond might have some time to win people over.
Dunwoody resident Rick Otness tried to remember how many times in the past 12 years he’s heard a new superintendent say that change was on the horizon. He thinks it’s been at least five.
“A lot of people impress me with what they say,” Otness said. “Now I wait to see what they do.”