Over the next several weeks The Champion newspaper education reporter Daniel Beauregard will be sitting down with newly-elected DeKalb County school board members to discuss their thoughts on the issues facing the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) in the years to come. Marshall Orson begins his term Jan. 1 as the District 2 board member. Readers are encouraged to submit questions via email at email@example.com.
What do you think are some of the issues the school district is facing in the coming years?
I think the financial crisis aside, which is very significant, and the lack of state funding aside, which has contributed to the problem, there has been a lack of clarity on an agreement of the mission of the school board, which you think would be pretty simple: it’s about making sure every child has a chance to get a high-quality education.
When you see the performance of the board and the great disharmony that exists among board members you begin to wonder why they can’t really build a consensus. It’s not like a county commission where there are competing interests. There’s not really a set of competing interests in education–there’s really one interest. We may have some arguments on the margins about how to reach the best outcome…to me the biggest issue is that we need a board of education that operates with a degree of harmony and consensus and I continue to believe that that has to start with beginning to develop personal relationships among board member.
If we don’t change the fundamental dynamics of how the board operates, it’s going to be very hard to have any meaningful reform in the school system.
What are some of the reforms needed in the DeKalb County School District (DCSD)?
We have this great disparity between a handful of schools that are performing very well and a large number of schools that are falling very short of delivering a quality education. We need to figure out what the components of high functioning schools are and what we need to do develop that. If we have a school that doesn’t have a high level of parental involvement, how do we overcome the obstacles in order to change those dynamics?
We make a lot of excuses such as there are high rates of poverty, but it is what it is and we can’t use it as an excuse for not turning those schools around. We can blame it on the children and their economic status or we could understand that when children get to school, they want to learn. It’s universally proven.
Is the board of education too big for members to come to a consensus on a certain issue?
I don’t think size alone dictates that, though it is ironic that three of the systems that have had the most trouble in Georgia—Clayton, Atlanta and DeKalb—have the largest boards.
I think when you have a single mission, there’s a tendency to get wrapped up in the smaller items, which the board shouldn’t do, rather than larger vision and mission issues that you then turn over to the administration to actually execute.
I think a smaller board would serve the interests by making members accountable to a larger population but that in and of itself isn’t going to fix the fundamental problems, which come from the lack of personal relationships between the board members. The best boards of education don’t reduce their work to get a majority of the votes.
What do you think about the charter school amendment?
I’m torn. I’ll start out by saying that I’m on the board of a school that was chartered by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission called Provost Charter Schools of Georgia. We were then unable to open because of the Georgia Supreme Court decision. We were just recently given the status of a state-special charter school by the governor….
I’m torn because I do support charter schools and I think they’re an important component of the offering we make. I think the ideal situation is for local systems to take the lead and embrace charters. I think there are circumstances where it would be impossible to get a charter from a local charter effectively.
There has also been hostility toward charters from local school systems—not to avoid your answer—but I don’t know. What I worry about is diverting funds from school systems that have already suffered significant cuts.
What are your thoughts of Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson? Has she done a good job up until this point?
I like her. I think she is focused and has a plan; she walked into a situation that was far more dysfunctional than she ever imagined. I would remind people that she has not been here even a year yet and has made significant changes in the senior staff.
I think she was a good choice. She wasn’t hastily hired—it’s not as she materialized out of thin air—she was one of the finalists for the Atlanta Public Schools job, then they decided to go with Erroll Davis. It was a happy coincidence that there was a good candidate who had been vetted and wanted to come to Atlanta.
What can you do to work alongside board members and develop better relationships?
I think you have to start by reaching out to them and understanding that everybody comes with a bank of experiences and life history and relationships….I don’t expect that I’m going to agree with every board member every time. However, [we’ve] got to focus on the substantive things we agree on—it’s easy to agree on the superficial things.
It’s hard but I think it’s an absolute necessity if you’re going to be an effective board of education. So one of my goals is to learn more about my fellow board members and for them to learn more about me and hopefully through that process figure out a way we can work together.