Schools opened across DeKalb County on Aug. 9 mostly without a hitch, school officials said. More than 93,000 students showed up at their desks in the morning. Learning abounded.
But the day didn’t progress without incident.
Principal Rita Harper-Hastings was approaching Stone Mill Elementary School before classes began when she was robbed by an assailant who injured her and stole her purse and wallet, school district officials said. Police arrested a suspect, and Harper-Hastings was taken to DeKalb Medical Center where she was recuperating from a broken arm later that evening, interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson said.
“She is a true leader,” she said. “She has assured us she is committed to her school.”
Nonetheless, the majority of students made it to class without hiccups, said Robert Moseley, deputy chief superintendent of operations. All students were safely delivered to classes, and none of them were lost in the bussing process, he said.
The district was expecting 98,181 students, and about 5,000 fewer showed up for the first day, Moseley said, which isn’t out of the norm. That gap will likely fill by the following Monday, he said.
About 6,500 teachers welcomed new classes across the district, which is still working to fill 10 teaching vacancies.
“I saw high morale and expectations,” board member Gene Walker said of a tour of several schools in his district.
District officials and board members said they saw the first day as a clean slate for a school district that has suffered a tumultuous year. The district is still recovering from the indictment of former Superintendent Crawford Lewis, former Chief Operating Officer Pat Reid and two others on racketeering charges in May.
The indictments were a cap on a very public, long-term investigation into Reid – formerly known as Pat Pope – and whether she favored her husband, architect Tony Pope, when doling out district construction contracts. The investigation and the indictments strained the school board, which is searching for a full-time replacement for Lewis. Tyson took over after Lewis resigned in April before his indictment, though Tyson said she has no interest in leading the district full-time.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which oversees school accreditation, has also stirred controversy in the district by publicly asking the administration and school board to answers questions about its policies concerning conflicts of interest, nepotism and whistle-blowing. The organization is also interested in the district’s commitment to staff and school board training and procurement procedures.
Board member H. Paul Womack said he believes the indictments sparked the SACS inquiry. Board members have also said they don’t believe the district’s accreditation is at stake, but SACS officials said the district’s answers to their questions will determine whether a deeper investigation is necessary.
“I like the way Mrs. Tyson is handling things from moving us from where we are to utopia,” board member Sarah Copelin-Wood said.
“I’m very pleased with what I saw,” board Vice Chair Zepora Roberts said.
Roberts, however, wasn’t terribly pleased with news media questions regarding district nepotism, however. Roberts has two children working for the district, and when a CBS Atlanta reporter questioned her after the meeting, Roberts threatened the reporter.
“I have no more comments to say to you, and don’t you come near me or I am going to slug you,” she said.
The head of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, Dave Schutten, called for Roberts’ resignation.
Schutten said he hopes SACS investigates Roberts and the rest of the board to see how much influence its had on the hiring of administrators related to several board members. He also said Roberts' comments were innappropriate.
“If a teacher had made that remark they would have been taken out of the classroom and taken up to the county office," he said.