A spate of candidates for the DeKalb County Board of Education stressed last week the necessity for change throughout an embattled school system, including the removal of sitting board members.
eduKALB, a nonprofit advocacy group backed by the county chamber of commerce, hosted a forum of mostly new candidates–men and women who have decided to challenge the school board’s standing order in November.
As it stands, five school board members face challengers. At eduKALB’s forum, Jay Cunningham was the only board member to show. Absent were Jim Redovian, Sarah Copelin-Wood, Zepora Roberts and Gene Walker.
“I do believe that there needs to be change, and there needs to be change now,” said Ella Smith, a teacher and coach who’s running against Walker in District 9.
Smith said hiring the school system’s next superintendent will be the board’s most pressing and important duty – an opinion shared by most of the candidates. She also said district expenditures should be audited as soon as possible to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly. Then, she said, the board should look to make cuts.
“We are way too top-heavy,” she said. “I’ve already done the research, me and a friend.”
In most cases, the candidates’ responses to questions from forum attendees and eduKALB’s host Bill Crane were a reflection of the school system’s recent troubles. Former Superintendent Crawford Lewis and former Chief Operating Officer Pat Reid were indicted in May on racketeering charges alleging they profited off the direction of pricey school construction contracts.
The indictments sparked an inquiry from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which oversees school accreditation, raising fears the DeKalb County School System’s accreditation could be at risk. System officials said that’s not the case but responded to SACS’ questions with a 2,500-page document detailing the district’s policies to prevent future malfeasance, among other things.
“We cannot be a Clayton County,” said Willie Mosley Jr., who is running against Roberts in District 7.
Mosley was referring to Clayton County’s loss of its accreditation in 2008. He said he vowed to fight against “foolish” school district spending, including legal fees. He said he believes teachers’ pay is too low.
Another Roberts challenger in District 7, Richard Gathany, a former teacher, lawyer and engineer in Stone Mountain, also said the board needs to change. He advocated better integration between the school system and influential institutions across the county, including county government, businesses and churches.
“Those who are in charge of [the board] are unlikely the ones to get us out of [the system’s problems],” he said.
He also said board members lacked respect and did not follow proper procedure during meetings.
Donna Edler, a former federal contracts investigator also running in District 7, said she agreed the system needed to be audited and increased investigation into construction money is necessary.
“I think a lot of our problems early on would have been alleviated [with a yearly audit],” she said.
Gathany vowed not to hire any family or friends – an indirect response to recent questions about the system’s employment of two of Roberts’ daughters.
“Many of the [board’s] decisions are based on who’s talked to whom rather than the needs,” he said.
All three District 7 candidates said they would listen to the community when the school system releases its recommended list of school closures and redistricting changes. Gathany said he supports the concept of community schools and would oppose the closure of schools that would move “kids to other parts of the county.” Edler said she would consider the community’s wishes with enrollment data and test scores.
In District 5, Cunningham will face Jacques Hall Jr., a Georgia Perimeter College student, and Kirk Nooks, an administrator at Georgia Highlands College.
“I’ve been waiting for Superman to show up, and he hasn’t shown up yet,” said Nooks, who also attacked Cunningham, saying the board member’s vow to improve academic excellence after he was elected has not been fulfilled.
Hall said he would work to make sure communities were more involved in education. Cunningham said he would continue to work with interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson to select the system’s next leader. He also pointed to the system’s recent hiring of a director of audit as a positive. He said he’d worked with other members for three years to hire the director.
All three District 5 candidates said they supported charter schools.
Cunningham said he’s brought about $95 million in school construction to his district since being elected.
“It’s not the time to change,” he said.
Corey Wilson, a car dealership manager, was the only District 3 candidate to show. He will face Copelin-Wood and Robert Lee Holt in November. He said parental involvement and a better relationship between the school system and the county government are key to improving county schools. He also said residents needed to ignore the differences between the northern half of the county and the southern half. A recent system proposal to close a handful of schools focused primarily on schools in southern DeKalb County.
“We’re one county,” he said. “We can come back. We’re not too far gone.”
He also said as a board member, cutting anything that affected classroom instruction would be considered last.
Nancy Jester, running against incumbent Redovian in District 1, said one of the district’s top priorities should be changing the public’s poor perception of the school district.
“Our perception problems aren’t going to be fixed overnight,” she said. “You have to be calling the media.”
She also said it was unclear whether small learning communities fostered better scholastic performance and vowed to support a “bottom-up” budgetary process in which individual schools would have their budgets covered before support budgets and the administration were considered.