Monday, June 1, 2009
It’s the end of the year as we know it!
Well, well, well. What can I say? The last Board of Education meeting for the 2008-09 school year was held at Lakeside HS this evening and it was, to my ears, a garbled mess. And let me tell you – the gloves are off!
We started out with Dr. Lewis expressing his disappointment in the fact that the Marine Academy Memorandum of Agreement has not been signed and the school has been put on hold – with no promise to open it in August of 2009 or even 2010. Reasons given by the marines were building selection and modifications, student application process and curriculum modifications.
Moving on to the public comments, we heard from several people who were very much against the Military Academy, including Grandmothers of Peace and the Georgia Veterans Alliance, which includes veterans of the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Tim Franzen of the American Friends Service Committee presented a written resolution compiled in part by the Georgia ACLU, the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, and the American Friends Service Committee to the board advocating for adhering to the UN Rights of the Child (which only the U.S. and Somalia have not signed). Many stated their concern that the military school is a recruitment tool, citing the fact that the funding is to come from the marines recruitment budget. They also pointed out that Chicago schools have readily admitted that their long-term experiment with military schools has not produced improved test scores or graduation rates. Eric Fontaine, representing the Libertarian Party of DeKalb County made a public statement that his organization opposes the Marine Institute. One lone speaker at the end endorsed the academy.
Shayna Steinfeld (who ran for School Board, District 4 but lost to Paul Womack) gave a cogent outline of her suggestions for improving DeKalb schools. It’s too bad that she only had 3 minutes to share her ideas, as they were intriguing. Some examples: return high schools to a six-period day, align DeKalb’s graduation requirements with the state’s, create a bona fide Vo-Tech school to enable all students to finish high school with a marketable skill, get rid of the new math curriculum, end policies that promote mediocrity in teaching and strengthen neighborhood schools.
Once again, Annette Jackson and her children approached the Board pleading for them not to move DeKalb Elementary School of the Arts (DESA) to Terrell Mill. However, this time, I was intriqued by what Ms. Jackson had to say. In fact, I send out a personal apology over this blog to her from me. I have been too harsh on her. She is passionate about schools and insuring that her children do well (they are both straight A students). We should lift up mothers like Annette Jackson who stood before the board and asked, “How can you find the money to start up a military academy for at-risk students, yet not support your top performers?” She is absolutely correct. And as a result, DeKalb’s top performers continue to leak from our buildings into other systems and private schools, ensuring that we have no hope for making AYP anytime in the future.
And, happily, we were treated to another uplifting year-end presentation by Sandy Purkett, who works tirelessly for the students at the “Great” Redan high school, helping to secure over $5 million in scholarships for students graduating this year! Way to go, Sandy!
Then, after a short break, we turned to the ugly business of the school board meeting at hand. Where do I begin? Well, first, there was a contentious debate over the contract for legal counsel before the Board. The contract put counsel under Dr. Lewis – effectively reporting directly to him (what they called a "solid" line) and serving as his personal attorney. Counsel is only connected via a “dotted line” to the Board, which was problematic to Dr. Walker, as he wondered how legal counsel would ever serve the Board if they disagree with the Superintendent, if that counsel reports directly to the Superintendent. He called it a “legal disaster”. Jay Cunningham agreed and voted no along with Walker, however the rest of the Board approved, except Sarah Copeland Wood who abstained, since she was attending the meeting “telephonically” and couldn’t grasp what the action was over the phone. In fact, it was hard to grasp what her comments were due to all of the very loud, ambient phone noise dotted with her raspy coughing.
Additionally, I must tell you that Dr. Lewis was forced by Dr. Walker to admit that yes, it’s true – the seven principals that he is moving to underperforming schools will each get a $10,000 bonus for their trouble! He defended his action, stating that he had a meeting with representatives from the federal government who assured him that he could use the Title 1 Stimulus money for these bonuses. (The money does not come from the general fund, however, some argued that even so, stimulus money should be spent more wisely.)
On top of that, several Board members took issue with the tardiness of Dr. Lewis’ submittal of the meeting minutes. He presented minutes for approval from meetings dating to early April, and several Board members complained that they couldn’t remember that far back in order to approve or make changes. SCW also requested a CD or DVD of the meetings soon after they occur for review.
There were a few other issues with regard to Dr. Lewis, which made me think that perhaps the Board is no longer wearing their rose-colored glasses in support of him. He has recently suffered serious set-backs in his administration and found that he had to defend his actions at every turn. In fact, he warned the Board several times that they should be wary of “micro-managing,” especially regarding his principal bonus plan and to effectively, step back and let him do his job. Dr. Walker continued to disagree, insisting that spending money on bonuses is in effect, policy-making, which is a Board responsibility. Dr. Lewis insisted that he only moved “A” principals (apparently they graded the principals recently) and that the complaints are most likely coming from jealous “D” performing principals. Dr. Walker and others demanded some kind of accounting as to how Dr. Lewis went about choosing these “top-performers” to move to low-performing schools. They want to see his rubric! Jim Redovian, a voice of reason, suggested that perhaps the bonuses should only come after the principal creates a positive movement in outcomes for students.
More interesting information came from this fairly heated argument. We learned that this bonus scheme has been going on for a while all over the county. For instance, the entire staff at McNair Middle School and Sequoia Middle School received bonuses in the past. And at Towers High School, the teachers and principal received bonuses and the school system paid for some teachers to earn a masters degree.
We ended with Paul Womack complaining that a certain Board member, (Gene Walker) as Chair of the DeKalb Development Authority is in a position to give a $52 million tax abatement to the Sembler Company for a development in Brookhaven (near Buckhead). Womack said that this will end up costing the school system $1.2 - $1.6 million every year for 20 years in lost tax revenues. Dr. Walker countered stating that Womack was spreading misinformation. He basically said that the school system won’t earn the tax dollars if the development isn’t built, so effectively we can’t ‘lose’ something we won’t have. (However, he is forgetting that if it is built, by someone who doesn’t ask for a tax abatement, the system will earn that money.) I quote Dr. Walker as saying, “It’s a transparent situation, assess the facts on your own.” (Note: We have tried this at the blog, but there is very little information to be found. All Development Authority meetings on the subject are closed-door.)
That’s pretty much all I have to report. As a point of clarification, the “High School B” mystery was solved by Pat Pope who told us that the original plan was to use the money from the state, which replaced money in the CIP budget to build a 9th/10th grade academy at MLK high school. That has been changed to an addition (not a separate building.) She also told us that there were plans to build an Arabia Middle School, however, that has been tabled as it was deemed unnecessary.
I think I’ll hit the hay now, as my head hurts and my fingers are cramped. I will end with more thoughtful suggestions from Shayna Steinfeld (another voice of reason). Since I asked for, and was given a copy of her speech, I will quote her verbatim, “We need to decentralize and reorganize. Give Area Superintendents the authority to run their areas as self-contained districts, mini-school systems. As Superintendent, Dr. Lewis and his staff must become proactive and get ahead of issues instead of always responding to crises. His time should be spent leading strategic planning and working cooperatively with other entities – Emory, the Bill Gates Foundation, GE and others – to bring the kind of resources to DeKalb that has benefited places like Atlanta Public Schools. He should have more experts in place running the other business functions of our billion dollar school system.
As board members, I encourage each of you to recognize that we are at a crisis point and address the issues before us sooner rather than later.”
I hope the Board heard that last part.