The Pathology of DeKalb County Schools

Among teachers and administrators who speak off the record, among parents who contribute to blogs on condition of anonymity, within the closed circle of board members, the DeKalb County school year comes to a grim close.

What a strange situation: We know so much and we know so little. How is it possible that intelligent, deeply concerned DeKalb County residents are reduced to such dubious speculation about the future of their public schools?

Running the schools with superb opacity, our elected officials and administrators share essential information only under duress. Documents appear and disappear at will, and the system’s financial accounting is routinely withheld or obscured.

At least in the fairytale Hansel and Gretel, the crumbs dropped by the children led somewhere. In the dark labyrinth of the DeKalb County School System, there are no trails at all. It’s impossible to follow the money or the ideas.

From the outside looking in, we cannot discern a plan. Hiring a new superintendent? Meeting the eight recommendations from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools? How about formulating an education agenda that constitutes more than a single “2020 Vision” web page, with its incongruous image of an idyllic lake surrounded by trees?

Historically, America’s public schools have mirrored social conflict and the tug between cultural tradition and change. Schools embody the endless argument between the status quo and reform. It is, perhaps, most often in the public schools that we encounter the triumph or deprivation of opportunity, equity and equality.

Within the school community, individuals bump up against the conventions of the system. How teachers teach and how students behave, the degree of administrators’ responsiveness to parents’ concerns, the frustration that one is not being heard, the disappointment in official determinations that seem unfair or wrongheaded – all generate tension.

In my own experience bringing up children in three different states, I’ve participated in debates over the teaching of evolution, the granting of tenure to a principal with anger-management issues, the expansion of a school building based on incomplete demographic data and the use of school buses to transport students to religious instruction. And I grew up in a city wracked by the board of education’s refusal to comply with a court order to desegregate its public schools.

No doubt about it, schools generate heat. School governance has always involved confrontation. And that’s all right in my view.

We don’t have to relish it, of course. But hashing out the curriculum, redistricting, construction, adoption of standards, recruitment and dozens of other issues is part of the business of education.  

If the law is broken, a serious challenge is justified. If decisions appear to be driven by personal or professional interests–if there is even the appearance of impropriety–a challenge is in order.

This brings us back around to the DeKalb County School System, which is virtually pathological. The most notable symptom of decay is the increasingly undemocratic operation of the schools. 

The system is so tightly controlled that residents have little opportunity to express themselves directly to school trustees in a public forum and must resort to writing email messages that are acknowledged, if at all, with an automatic response.

Similarly, the public has been denied access to crucial details of the budget and the courtesy of updates on the superintendent search process. Communications from the board and superintendent often are jumbled and self-serving.

Paranoia is so entrenched it took a month to get clearance to write a few stories that actually highlighted the good work of the schools.

A school system that functions democratically is characterized by open discourse between school board members and the people they represent. Argument is a healthy part of that dialogue. Impulsive pronouncements by individual trustees (candor is not always refreshing or constructive) and heavy-handed public relations management of meetings and information signify that the system is in poor health.

In DeKalb County, the business of education has come down to the contemptuous use of power to create personal prerogatives that have absolutely nothing to do with improving the education of 100,000-plus students.  

We may not have all the information we deserve, but we know enough to recognize the impairment of the school system through undemocratic practices.

This is the last of Claudia Keenan's Classroom Notes columns for this school year.

Susan Curtis May 23, 2011 at 02:55 PM
I agree with Cerebration that you could not have said this more eloquently; what a shame that the majority of the BOE will just dismiss this as more citizen grumblings from someone who doesn't know what they know.
Dekalb Tax Payer May 23, 2011 at 04:28 PM
I enjoyed the generic pathology of school districts. The useless nature of the 202o Vision and opaqueness of the budget are dead horses. The otherwise lack of specifics and insight do not give your pedigree justice. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take from this article.
Tom Doolittle May 23, 2011 at 05:26 PM
All public offices (mostly extra-governmental authorities) in DeKalb are shrouded in secrecy--"inexplicably", say journalists that aren't competent as investigators (or their media doesn't want it done). PDK Airport has "inexplicably" spent gobs of money defending a public records lawsuit that asked for flight information that every airport hands out willingly--even publishes on the internet. Why don't people (and press) ask "why"? Water/Sewer rate increase--no one really knows how much is due to wastewater expamsion for large commercial development and Rockdale county use--instead reported as "upgrade". What is the increment that residents should pay for their own use? Who should pay for developers' use? What developers, what expansion, says govt? It's an upgraaaadde. Why can't the DA get King and Spalding's files on the Lewis case? Consider something other than the "conventional wisdom". Even the "vaunted" SACs won't "go there" when it comes to DeKalb (they're rabid in Atlanta with political cover).. Did you see the tepid and obscure "recommendations? What exactly has SACs accomplished--what does the school board act on--to what end?
Don Broussard May 24, 2011 at 10:39 PM
I feel more sympathy for our school board members --at least most of them-- than does Ms. Keenan, the author. I believe we have a working majority on the Board that is bi-racial and that is trying to clean up the wreckage of the last four years. Pam Speaks, Paul Womack, and Don McChesney did not hire Crawford Lewis or Pat Pope and they did not create this mess. We need to remember Lynn Cherry Grant and Bebe Joyner (among others) --and ask them why they were asleep at the switch. Tom Doolittle has a better, broader and wiser perspective on things in DeKalb and I agree more with his sentiments. Please note how the AJC managed to get "leaks" from certain school board members which succeeded in blowing up the DeKalb superintendent search. Is that the fault of the entire Board? --No. Ms. Kennan, you might want to ask the African-American community in Lithonia why they returned ex-felon Jay Cunningham to the school board. The Board is clearly divided -- with a three person minority (Copeland-Wood, Cunningham, and Walker) that can only be called toxic. Despite Kennan's perspective from other areas where her kids went to school, she naively has not perceived this fact or does not want to acknowledge it. However, I do share her objection to the lack of openness and the game-playing that too frequently occurs in the DeKalb School System.
Claudia Keenan May 25, 2011 at 01:13 PM
Hi, I understand that some board members may have trangressed more than others but a BOARD has COLLECTIVE responsibility for itself. And the buck stops with the leader. My perspective from personal experience and from the history of education, which is my field, was intended to suggest that conflict is part of the process of public education -- not to dodge the issues. You are right, I did not address race; not because I'm naive or unwilling to acknowledge it. My overarching point concerned the board's undemocratic style and actions and how they have hurt the schools. The question of why so many DeKalb residents continue to vote against their own interests is very much tied to race and bears scrutiny.


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