Author Archives: DeKalb SchoolWatch

Low turnout feared for crucial DeKalb school board election

Down near the bottom of the ballot, just above a manufactured goods tax exemption in the tiny city of Clarkston, is an election with serious consequences for the parents of 100,000 students — not to mention anyone who pays taxes in DeKalb County.

All seven seats on the board that governs Georgia’s third largest school district are up for grabs.

Despite the importance for a county school system that nearly lost accreditation and has yet to fully regain it, two candidate forums hosted by Leadership DeKalb last month drew smaller than expected crowds. The civic advocacy group raised $25,000 to publicly vet the 22 candidates, yet only about 60 people turned up to watch each event.

Yvette Pitts-Ayo, a parent and school volunteer, felt anxious as she exited the second one at a south DeKalb community center. The lack of interest does not bode well for the May 20 election, she said.

“I’m ill at ease, because I don’t think enough people are going to come out,” said Pitts-Ayo, whose son is in seventh grade. “It’s not time to relax and think things are okay. We are still in a crisis.”

Low turnout would give outsize influence to special interests in the non-partisan races. Since there is no school board primary in DeKalb, this will be the final vote except for any runoffs.

This is an election for the history books for several reasons.

First, in reaction to perceived dysfunction, the Georgia General Assembly cut two seats from the nine-member board and adjusted the terms of the remaining seven so that all are up for election this year. Second, in reaction to the same perceived dysfunction, Gov. Nathan Deal replaced six elected board members last year, but only four of his appointees are running and they all face opposition.

The intersection of these two events produced this odd outcome: One of the governor’s appointees, Karen Carter, was shifted into the district of Jim McMahan, one of the three elected members Deal left on the board, so that race features two incumbents. Also, Jesse “Jay” Cunningham, one of the members tossed out by Deal, wants back on the board; Don McChesney, who lost his seat to Marshall Orson in the election two years ago, is running against Orson again; and Stan Jester, whose wife was removed from the board by Deal, is running unopposed.

The winners will make decisions that will determine whether the district regains full accreditation. Selection of the next superintendent will be chief among them.

That’s why parents such as Allyson Gevertz are talking so much about this election. The co-president of the Emory Lavista Parent Council tried to get people to attend the candidate forums.

“This election,” she said, “is arguably the most important that’s ever occurred in DeKalb County.”

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the agency that placed DeKalb on accreditation probation in 2012, has praised the current board and superintendent Michael Thurmond for stabilizing the district. Earlier this year, SACS bumped DeKalb’s accreditation up a notch to “accredited warned” status. But that’s still a couple steps from full accreditation, and Mark Elgart, president and CEO of SACS parent company AdvancED, has warned that this election is “critical” to the district’s future.

“This community needs to pay close attention to whom they elect, “Elgart said in January, when he announced the end of probation. “Politics is one of the reasons the system got itself to this point.”

Thurmond’s contract expires in June 2015, and he has said he does not intend to remain as superintendent after that.

Fear of a return to dysfunction was obvious at the candidate forums, where the word “sorry” was used more than once to describe the old school leadership.

“The previous BOE [board of education] was dysfunctional. What can you do to keep the board from going back to that if some of the previous board members are re-elected,” one member of the audience at a mid-April event at Emory University asked through a moderator. Another question: “Given the sorry history the board has in choosing superintendents (this elicited knowing laughter from the scant audience), why should we believe the board will choose a capable leader this next time?”

During a companion event at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center, the moderator asked this next question of every candidate present because it “was deemed to be a priority question and a very important” one: “Given the sorry state of the previous school board, how can we trust the new school board will work together, put student issues ahead of adult issues, and pick the right superintendent?”

Those forums are history now, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is presenting brief biographies of all 22 candidates today and in coming days, along with their responses to questions about key issues. Their answers were pared down for the newspaper, but fuller responses from all the candidates are available now on myajc.com.

By Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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DeKalb School’s Budget – It’s a Miracle, Allegedly




Showing further evidence of an economic turnaround in metro Atlanta, even the DeKalb County School District, once a fiscal basket case, is expected to have enough money next year to give all employees a pay raise.

The district was running an unprecedented, not to mention illegal, deficit just two years ago, but should be able to eliminate all teacher furlough days and still put a little something away in the savings account. The brightened prospects are due in part to recovering property tax revenue and savings from cutbacks on some costs, such as legal fees.

Superintendent Michael Thurmond, who took over the district last year in the midst of a financial and political crisis, described the turnaround as “to some extent, miraculous.” He said the 1 percent cost-of-living raise in his new budget, small though it may be, was a “down payment” to the district’s 12,147 employees who didn’t flee during the dark days.

During the 2011-12 school year, Georgia’s third largest district was reeling from a $14.5 million deficit and the public blowback it triggered. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools was railing at the money spent on law firms instead of classrooms, and threatening to revoke accreditation. Parents were complaining about classroom crowding, as ever fewer teachers staffed the schools.

Teachers have gone without pay raises for about a half dozen years..

“Anybody that could get a job in another county that didn’t have strong ties to DeKalb was leaving,” said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, the district’s main employee advocate group. By last year, the deficit was gone and the budget was at least balanced, though there was little money left over to do much for staff. Schutten said Thurmond’s plans to put more money in employee’s pockets in the 2014-15 budget is welcome news for the 6,163 teachers. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he said, adding that DeKalb has “caught up to what some of the other school systems have done.”

The proposed budget of about $800 million will eliminate four furlough days for all employees, leaving teachers with no furlough days and year-round employees with three to four. A furlough is a missed day of work without pay, so it’s essentially a pay cut. Since three of the four teacher furlough days are affecting class instruction this year (the fourth is a training day), the academic calendar will grow to the state minimum of 180 days under the proposal, and students will no longer be shorted three days, as the state has allowed under a hardship waiver.

DeKalb also has enough to spend $8 million to hire 100 new teachers, plus support staff. That would lower class sizes, though officials have not yet calculated how much. DeKalb has waivers from the state that allow it to exceed maximum student-teacher ratios by two students per class.

Another $5.3 million would go to new textbooks and rebinding of battered, old books. Student Aleyna Bratton-Stalworth was thrilled to hear about that. The junior at Redan High School had to share a U.S. History textbook with two other teenagers and could not take it home to study.

“The book condition is absolutely deplorable,” said Bratton-Stalworth, 17. “We have books that start at page 200.”

Despite all the new spending, DeKalb should still have enough left over to build up its general fund balance, or “rainy day” fund, to $20 million. That is less than a third of what it should be, but it’s better than nothing, or a negative number like before.

All this was outstanding news for school board members, especially with an election just two weeks away.

Thad Mayfield, who has four challengers on May 20, elicited knowing chuckles from his colleagues when he summed up Thurmond’s proposal in five words: “This is a beautiful budget,” he said.

By Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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DeKalb teacher got job despite Florida court history


He was banned for life from teaching in Florida after being charged with sexually abusing a student, but Horace Morris managed to get a classroom job in Georgia.Morris resigned Friday from the DeKalb County School District after his past caught up with him and his termination tribunal was about to begin. The district only learned of his background after students discovered news articles about him online. The state independently discovered it around the same time after a new computer system flagged his past.

The law and justice teacher at DeKalb High School of Technology South got a Georgia teaching certificate in 2010, just one year after Florida took away his teaching certificate there and told him never to apply for one again.

Georgia and Florida are both members of the NASDTEC Clearinghouse, a database shared by states to record educator certification and disciplinary status. Florida entered the information about Morris’ ban, but Georgia’s teacher certification agency failed to notice.

Kelly Henson, executive secretary of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, blamed it on a cranky old computer system that was too complicated. Someone in the certification department would have had to notice Morris’ Florida problem, then inform someone in the ethics department, he said. “Our old IT system had too many moving parts, and a few things fell through the cracks.”

The agency recently purchased a new system that flags certification issues and automatically informs an ethics official. Morris was caught when he applied for a new teaching certificate this year because he wanted to teach a different subject, Henson said.

DeKalb backgrounds all teacher candidates, and the district’s public safety department did run Morris through two government repositories of criminal history: the state and the national crime information centers, district spokesman Quinn Hudson said.

Morris’ Florida background was duly noted but was not communicated to the human resources department.

“Somebody checked the box that said he was cleared,” Hudson said. “We are now conducting an investigation to find out how he got through the system.”

Morris was hired Jan. 15. Students then alerted the district in mid-March about his past after they typed his name into Google and found numerous news articles, Hudson said. The district immediately suspended him, Hudson said.

DeKalb chief legal officer Ronald Ramsey sent a letter to DeKalb District Attorney Robert James on Friday that contended Morris violated a Florida court probation order by applying for a job with DeKalb in 2009, since he was ordered in 2008 not to work in a school for three years. The letter also said Morris claimed in his 2014 job application that he had worked for an Atlanta charter school in the 2011-12 school year.

Morris didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

An April 22 termination letter details the circumstances that led to Morris’ arrest in 2005: While teaching in the Miami-Dade County School District, he was accused of forcing a 13-year-old girl to give him oral sex.

The girl was in his social science class at the Jet Mann Opportunity Center School, according to an administrative complaint by the Florida Education Practices Commission. The complaint said Morris pleaded guilty to child abuse, a felony, in August 2008, and the court “withheld adjudication of guilt” and ordered five years probation and the surrender of his teaching certificate.


CHRONOLOGY OF A TROUBLED TEACHING CAREER

  • Sept. 25, 2005: Horace Morris arrested on sexual battery and other charges, according to DeKalb County School District termination notice.
  • May 26, 2006: Resigned from Miami-Dade County School District, according to a Florida Education Practices Commission (FEPC) administrative complaint.
  • Aug. 13, 2008: Pleaded guilty to child abuse/no great bodily harm, a felony, but the court “withheld adjudication of guilt,” according to the FEPC. Sentenced to five years probation.
  • June 2009: Applied for a job with DeKalb, according to a DeKalb school district letter to District Attorney Robert James.
  • Oct. 20, 2009: Florida teaching certificate permanently revoked and a permanent ban issued against applying for another, according to the FEPC.
  • 2010: Obtained a Georgia teaching certificate, according to Kelly Henson, executive secretary of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
  • November 2012: Applied again for a job with DeKalb, according to the school district letter.
  • January 2014: Applied a third time for a job with DeKalb, according to the school district letter.
  • Jan. 15: Hired by DeKalb, according to DeKalb employee resignation and leave of absence form.
  • March 14: DeKalb school district learns of past “allegations of sexual contact with a minor student,” according to DeKalb termination notice.
  • March 17: Georgia Professional Standards Commission opens investigation, according to DeKalb termination letter.
  • April: Georgia PSC revokes teaching certificate, according to Henson.
  • May 2: Resignation letter delivered; last formal date of employment.

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DeKalb school district seeks fines for teachers who abandon jobs

Dozens of teachers who signed contracts with DeKalb County schools last spring failed to show up when it came time to start their jobs, abandoning students and prompting a new punitive policy intended to discourage similar behavior next fall.

Superintendent Michael Thurmond inserted a “liquidated damages clause” in contracts that are being issued to teachers now. The new contracts require prospective employees to agree to a $750 fine should they back out after they sign the agreement.

The teachers who reneged on contracts they signed last May left the district scrambling to find replacements.

Tekshia Ward-Smith, the school system’s chief of human resources, said about 500 of the 6,800 educators who signed contracts later sought to be released. The district let some out of their agreement, but others abandoned students without permission.

About 50 teachers “simply did not show up on the first day of school,” Ward-Smith said.

She said other districts, including Fulton County, have similar sanctions built into their contracts. Spokeswoman Susan Hale said the Fulton school system’s fine is $500.

School board members queried Thurmond about the new fine during their meeting Tuesday. They noted the district’s relatively low pay — DeKalb pays thousands of dollars less per year than neighboring Atlanta Public Schools, with the gap increasing with experience. Some said the district is driving talent away.

“The decisions aren’t hard for our employees,” said Jim McMahan, who represents northeast DeKalb. He said that, after years of frozen pay, teachers are complaining: “You’re giving me no choice.”

Board member Marshall Orson, who represents north central DeKalb, said some staffers may be blindsided by the new requirement. “These are human beings trying to support their families,” he said.

School officials could pursue a more draconian punishment. It’s an ethical violation to abandon a contract, Thurmond said, and DeKalb could press the issue with the Professional Standards Commission, which certifies teachers and could temporarily remove certification for violators, depriving them of their livelihood.

Thurmond said the abandonment problem has been an ongoing one that he wants to end. He said the new clause permits a less drastic remedy by sending a clear message to employees: “If you give your word, keep it.”

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Superintendents – Apply Here

Following in the footsteps of Atlanta Public Schools, the DeKalb County School District will initiate a superintendent search in late spring.

the Atlanta school board revealed last month that Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of the Austin Independent School District, was the lone contender to succeed Atlanta Superintendent Erroll Davis. Meanwhile, DeKalb’s superintendent, Michael Thurmond, has said he does not want to remain in his job after his contract expires in June 2015, which is prompting another search effort.

DeKalb school board Chairman Melvin Johnson said Tuesday that DeKalb will begin discussing a search for a replacement in June. He named three board members — Joyce Morley, John Coleman and Jim McMahan — to prepare for that discussion. Besides DeKalb, Cobb County will be searching for a superintendent, after the resignation of Michael Hinojosa.

By Ty Tagami – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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