If you want to get DeKalb County schools chief Crawford Lewis’ defense of a recent $15,000 raise, looking in the local newspaper wouldn’t necessarily get you anywhere.
Not unless you’re talking about Chamblee High School’s student newspaper.
Lewis said he gave his first public interview regarding the raise the school board recently approved to a group of Chamblee High student reporters this month because he said local news outlets distorted facts and sensationalized the issue.
“The reason why I have agreed to talk to you is because you are students,” Lewis said in an interview printed in this month’s issue of the Blue and Gold, the student paper. “I believe students should get the facts. The reason I have not talked to the media is because the media will write what it chooses to write, regardless of the facts. The media will take a 45-minute interview and turn it into a sound bite that will make you look like you are defending something.”
In a full-page interview with the paper, Lewis defends his raise by saying he gave up a $10,000 raise last year that was written into his contract because fellow district employees were not going to receive raises as the economy began to tailspin. He also claims he surrendered half of a $24,000 “academic incentive” bonus.
This year the school board approved the raise Jan. 4, rankling a large number of teachers and educators who said they have not received raises for several years, which Lewis said is untrue. The raise, which board members approved in an 8-1 vote, led to in-school protests that included hundreds of teachers wearing all-black outfits to work. Educators also assembled outside a board meeting in mid-January, holding signs and protesting district leadership.
Lewis said his most recent contract, beginning in 2007, was for $230,000 the first year; $240,000 the second year; and $250,000 for the third in 2009. Ellis said he turned down the $10,000 bump the final year because it was the first year district employees would not receive raises. After the $15,000 raise, he will be paid $255,000 – only $5,000 more than the final year of his previous contract.
The board also extended his contract – which was scheduled to expire in October 2011 – through 2012.
Lewis told the newspaper that while many school districts are laying off teachers, DeKalb County has managed to avoid that and will likely do so this year as it considers plans to shed more than $56 million from the budget.
“I think a lot of that is due to my skills and the skills of the board of education and the people around me,” he said. “I do not take 100 percent credit for it.”
Lewis also said his salary is far below those of his counterparts in metro Atlanta school districts, and he refuses to discuss the matter with the media.
“I do not think I have to defend my raise, especially one that has been five years in the making,” he said. “Again, I have kept (quiet) because leaders do not complain. I have taken a lot of criticism, a lot of complaints, and that is what comes with the job.”
Lewis did not return a phone call to The Champion as of press time.
School board member H. Paul Womack, who voted to give Lewis his raise, said he agreed with Lewis’ opinion of local media.
“They take the juicy sound bites, stuff that will sell, and they go with it,” he said.
But Lewis’ biggest issue is with local educators whose morale “has been devastated,” said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, a professional group that represents many district teachers.
“The press has given his point of view,” he said. “He’s not factoring in how the employees are feeling. That’s where the disconnect is.”