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PTA President Lambasts School Board Members

Jennifer Hatfield attended last week's state hearing and weighs in on the crisis.

By Jennifer Hatfield, President of the Evansdale Elementary School PTA and Tucker parent of two.

Having attending numerous DeKalb Board of Education meetings, I can tell you I have NEVER witnessed the DeKalb board act in such a manner. I hope that Governor Deal watched the webcast of the hearing since he was not present.

I believe that the testimony of the nine current board members painted a pretty clear picture of what is wrong. Our system is broken, though only two members, Dr. Speaks and Mrs. Jester, had the courage to express any accountability. Sadly, they are two of the most honest and hard-working members of the board.

In the next hearing in February, it may be helpful to call Dr. Atkinson and former BOE members Paul Womack, Don McChesney and Thomas Bowen to give testimony and answer questions. These three have nothing to lose at this point as they have been unseated in their positions on the board. They may help bring even more clarity to the "culture" on the board.

In addition, I believe that BOE members, particularly Dr. Walker, Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Coppelin-Wood should be asked about the perceived "friends and family plan," otherwise known as nepotism within the district. Dr. Walker has gone on record previously indicating that he sees no problem with this practice. This has been a huge part of the problem with missing monies within the system. I believe that some of this money was directed to middle management salaries. This issue needs to be explored further. Based on my experience and observations, here are my recommendations. I realize that the state BOE can only recommend suspension of the entire board, so these are for Governor Deal.  

  • Recent legislation calls for a reduction of the size of the school board from nine to seven in 2014. If possible, I believe that if and when Governor Deal steps in, he should ensure that the board only consists of only seven members going forward - this year.
  • Keep Nancy Jester on the BOE. She rises above the antics and political posturing, though she is frequently a target of it. She seems to truly have the best interest of DCSD's students at heart. She asks the tough questions and demands answers. She is not afraid to call attention to inconsistencies and inequities as she sees them.
  • Keep Pamela Speaks on the BOE. She is intelligent, functional and thoughtful. She has served the system well since joining the BOE and also seems to have the students' best interest at heart.
  • Keep newly elected members Orson Marshall and Jim McMahan on the BOE. The people of their districts have spoken. I'd like to see them have a chance. We, as stakeholders, can re-evaluate their service in 2014.
  • Put Melvin Johnson on probation. As a former employee of DCSD, there is a huge conflict of interest with his service. He is responsible for a questionable lease/deal with New Birth Church for a location for the "Leadership Academy" to meet that has cost the system hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ask him why, with a brand new central office facility and numerous vacant buildings throughout the county, we must lease space from a DeKalb church for this program. Nepotism? Mr. Johnson is simply more of the same and our kids deserve better.
  • Put Donna Edler on probation. She seems to have fed into the perceived division of North and South within the county. She is very much a part of the aforementioned disfunction that exists within the board. Ms. Edler is part of the problem, rather than the solution.
  • Put Jay Cunningham on probation. This man has a questionable, if not criminal background. I have witnessed firsthand his grandstanding. I have met numerous parents within his district that are dissatisfied with his lack of service. Ask him about his relative's car dealership and its deals with the school system. In addition, ask him about his own pizza restaurant and its dealings with DCSD at the upcoming hearing. More nepotism. Mr. Cunningham is also part of the problem, rather than the solution.
  • Put Sarah Coppelin-Wood on probation. Perhaps the most incompetent member of the current board, she doesn't even know how to work the button she's tasked with pushing to vote at the meetings. Seriously, a staff member must get up during meetings and walk over to show her what to do. She often reads written statements prepared for her, rather than expressing her own personal thoughts. She needs to go immediately, if not sooner. 
  • Put Eugene Walker on probation. This man is a career politician. He continually denies corruption, even when the evidence is irrefutable. I believe he is also guilty of nepotism within the system. He's as much as said so. He is also quoted as saying "I see color" with respect to race. It is shameful that he has been allowed to remain on the BOE this long and as chair for the last year. Shameful! He is a huge part of what is wrong with this board. Grandstanding and political posturing are his MO. 

The following are just a few of the problems I see within the system that many of the current board members simply refuse to address.

  • Too much money spent on legal fees.
  • Too much money going to central office salaries. An audit of the system recommended downsizing the central office. Rather than doing so, the district laid off employees, then rehired nearly half of them in different roles.
  • Disfunction among BOE member and an inability to work with one another - irreconcilable differences, if you will.
  • Nepotism and corruption at the central office.
  • BOE involvement in hiring/firing and contracts.
  • Gross fiscal mismanagement. To name just a couple of examples; 1) SPLOST IV bond interest was not accounted for, so there was a $12M shortfall costing our kids numerous building level improvements. Projects were canceled, so that monies could be used to pay interest on said bonds. 2) In addition, There has been serious gerrymandering by district officials (former CFO specifically) of the system's budget. For instance, line items such as electricity cost (that should be rather invariable) were gerrymandered so that large amounts of funds could be applied elsewhere in the budget. Only Nancy Jester seemed to catch this in the budget that the BOE was asked to approve. Even the chair of the finance committee, Paul Womack, didn't see it. Ms. Jester was stonewalled when she brought it up and asked questions about it.

Finally, here are two photos I took with my cell phone at the hearing of Eugene Walker and Sarah Coppelin-Wood sleeping. Yes, both fell asleep during the hearing. I was sitting just across the aisle from them on the same row and could see very clearly. I even heard Ms. Coppelin-Wood snoring at one point. I wish I could say I was surprised by this observation, but I wasn't. You see, they have never had to bear any accountability for their actions previously. There is no oversight or code of ethics. This is a huge problem.

I am not a BOE member, nor is my job or position at stake and yet, I listened carefully to each and every word that was uttered. I care and anyone else that truly cared would not allow themselves to fall asleep during such a hearing, especially the very people who are facing possible suspension. It's disgraceful and flies in the faces of the 98,000 students of DeKalb County, their parents and other stakeholders. No longer should this type of indifference be tolerated.

Jennifer Hatfield 

Related articles on Tucker Patch

Do you agree with Ms. Hatfield's views and recommendations? Tell us in the comments below-

Jennifer January 26, 2013 at 04:58 PM
Thanks, Anne. They did cut parts of my letter out. I expressly stated that I am NOT writing on behalf of any organization I am affiliated with.
Lisa MH January 27, 2013 at 03:42 AM
Well written, Jennifer. I don't know the school board members well enough to judge, so I appreciated the candid analysis. The photos are helpful (and shocking). I did take the article as being written as an individual not on behalf of any organization. LisaMH
Richard Kelley January 30, 2013 at 05:15 PM
Great letter!!!! Hope the Governor reads it....
Cheryl Miller January 30, 2013 at 08:46 PM
Thank you for being involved and calling out the wrongs that you have seen or experienced. I am curious, though, as to why you think that a newly elected board member, Melvin Johnson, should received different treatment than another newly elected board member, Marshall Orson? Mr. Orson was responsible for outright lies told to the press and community groups that heavily influenced the vote for SPLOST IV that he has now suddenly become a big part of overseeing. And, no big surprise, the school in his community which had a $2 million wing added just a few years ago is now scheduled for a total demolition so a new $10 million structure can go up instead. Talk about wasteful spending! He has been working deals behind the scenes with Dr. Walker for several years now that have resulted in the divide between the "wants" and the "wants more" division in our county. Tucker, sadly, is often caught in the middle of a tug of war of power and the kids will lose out in the end. I agree with most of what you say, but I believe the only way to get a clean slate is to actually start with a totally clean slate. Then, settle the lawsuits and stop the attorneys from being the puppet masters behind everything the board says or does. If we cannot solve the issues that have driven so many good families out of our schools, we need to start demanding vouchers so the money will truly benefit the children it was intended to educate.
Cheryl Miller January 30, 2013 at 08:56 PM
Here is one link: http://www.11alive.com/news/article/211104/40/Voters-weigh-education-sales-tax-with-SPLOST- You will see my quote:"We've got to do something to let the board know that we are not happy with the decisions they've made," said parent Cheryl Miller, who plans to vote no. "We don't want them to waste any more of our dollars. We don't believe in empty promises, and we need a way to wake up the rest of the county and let them know we need their help." And Marshall Orson's: ""It requires that the SPLOST be in effect to reduce the board and make them all stand for election," said parent Marshall Orson, a member of the lobbying group Friends of DeKalb Education. "So voting for SPLOST is also a vote for a clean slate on the board?" asked 11Alive's Jennifer Leslie. "Absolutely," Orson said. "It's a historic opportunity for us to replace the entire board." (This was an outright lie and it is now costing us $475 million.) If you are going to fault Melvin Johnson for a bad deal to help one area over others, then you have to fairly assess the behavior of others on this same scale. Ironically, the historic opportunity may actually be right now, with him being booted along with them. Here's another interview: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local-govt-politics/school-splost-has-opposition/nQM4y/ with the AJC.

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