Thursday, December 17, 2009

Schools “Transparency” Bill Offered After School System’s Year from Hell

By Tom Doolittle

The DeKalb County School System has had a tough year—certainly with its administration in the media. Regional print journals and television news have covered Superintendent Crawford Lewis’ under-market surplus car purchase, bullied student Jaheem Harrera’s suicide and $400,000 investigation payment to a former judge, a state-level review of scholastic testing fraud, the condition of Cross Keys High School, school board member Eugene Walker’s influence in a tax abatement case and recently and a GBI investigation involving a high level school administrative official (Pat Pope) in charge of over $200 million in SPLOST 1 and 2 capital projects. These issues all have at least one thing in common: they involve expenses and effort having little to do with educating students.

At least two of these matters, the Pope and Walker cases are related to a question of undue influence stemming from conflicts of interest. In turn, relating to employee hiring ethics, the DeKalb School Watch blog has highlighted the names of nearly a dozen highly paid school administrative executives who have family members in positions to have influenced their being hired. The blog has also pulled the number of administrative positions that pay over $100,000 a year from state Department of Education records, some for non-teaching positions initiated this year as tax revenues have plummeted.

All of these issues might at least partly explain why Georgia House Representative Kevin Levitas (D-Northlake/Tucker) has authored "The DeKalb School Board Transparency Act" which among other things would regulate conflicts of interest among school board members and DCSS employees. When asked about the process for the local legislation’s passage, Levitas e-mailed, “I think that we need to pass this bill as quickly as possible… to install a much-needed check in the system...”

The school system has no specific ethics code while the county government’s rules, legislated and passed by public referendum in 1990, do not apply to DCSS. After Levitas made his state legislative proposal public, the school board proposed its own ethics code. A vote to implement the DCSS policy was deferred at the last open school board meeting, to the dismay of at least one member, District 4’s Paul Womack. Womack said, “Either the board passes policy that is strong or stronger (than Levitas’ bill) or I will actively support his proposal.” With regard to the school board’s failure to vote last week, Womack mused, “It’s a mystery to me why anyone would oppose it.” Board members Walker, Roberts, Redovian, Copeland-Wood and Cunningham voted to defer the item.

Levitas e-mailed that he had not seen the school board’s rules draft, so he had no comment about it. The legislative bill, as currently crafted is ten (10) pages versus a three-page DCSS draft “policy”. One fundamental difference is that Levitas’ 10-page bill governs employees as well as school board members, in fundamentally stark contrast to the school board proposal which in part, seeks specifically to stay out of the administration’s business. Levitas stated, “I think it is important that neither DCSS employees and administrators nor elected officials have a conflict (potential or actual) regarding their exercise of their respective duties.” Regarding employees, many of Lavitas’ stipulations would have an impact on cases such as the highly-publicized Pat Pope investigation. For example, employees could not, “Engage in or accept private employment … for private interests when such employment or service is incompatible with the proper discharge of such person's official duties or would tend to impair his or her independence of judgment or action in the performance of his or her official duties.”

Not all prohibitions in Levitas’ legislation would necessarily be judged by an ethics commission. For most “business” conflicts, the law’s emphasis is on “transparency” or disclosure, stating, “Any board member who has a financial interest in any contract or matter pending before the board shall disclose such interest (in board records).” A board member’s or employee’s business or familial relationship, sometimes framed as “cronyism” and “nepotism”, is then advertised to the public, and subjected to discussion in a school board meeting after a 45-day public review period. In essence, if undue influence is deemed to exist by the school board, a contract or purchase is killed and punishment or sanction is not at issue—there is no role for an ethics body in such cases.

However, one type of conflict of interest is directly prohibited by Levitas, without any involvement by school board or ethics commission. In what the state representative termed as an “inherent” conflict at a recent public forum at Henderson Middle School, school board members would be prohibited from holding other public appointments or elective offices. If the regulation had already been in place when he was elected to the school board this year, Dr. Eugene Walker would have been forced to resign a position on the DeKalb Development Authority which he had held for several years. Walker resigned by choice after a public uproar when the finance authority proposed a tax abatement for the Sembler Company’s Town Brookhaven project, an action that would have reduced school system tax revenue. Sembler and individuals associated with the company had earlier made financial contributions to Walker’s school board candidacy.

Of course, as in all appointed commissions, public satisfaction is primarily dependent on the members chosen and the public’s trust in what interest they serve. In Levitas’ bill, the DeKalb Legislative Delegation chooses the commission members. An interesting twist in the proposal is the Delegation has the option of requiring that all members be from outside of DeKalb County.

Levitas said he expects the county-wide legislative Delegation to support the proposal because, “I have had very positive feedback from people across the county and hope that they will express their support to their respective legislators.”


Tom Doolittle is a 16-year resident of the Northlake area, was a columnist for former Community Review newspaper and now distributes news to several local blogs and websites. The writer has two children who have attended Lakeside High School.


Anonymous said...

Great job, Tom!!

Cerebration said...

It appears that the judge did not agree with Dr. Lewis' suggestion that the best way to handle the cheating was to write the cheaters a letter of support. Nope, the judge gave the principal jail time.

As the Champion reported yesterday,
Former principal pleads guilty to falsifying test answers at Atherton Elementary

Former Atherton Elementary School Principal James Berry pleaded guilty to falsifying state documents – his students’ state-standardized tests, more specifically – this month and received two years probation and a fine, officials said.

The final year of Berry’s probation is suspended, his attorney, Jackie Patterson, said. He must also pay a $1,000 fine. Under the state’s First Offender Act, Berry will also be able to say he’s never been charged with a felony provided he complies with the terms of his probation, Patterson said. The law allows the court to decide when the act is applicable.

Berry was charged with a felony and could have received up to 10 years in prison, according to a statement from the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office.

Through Patterson, Berry declined comment.

There's more! To read the entire article click the link above.

Cerebration said...

The Walker story in a nutshell -

Dr Walker accepting nearly $20,000 in campaign contributions for his school board seat (while also serving as chair of the DeKalb Development Authority) from the Sembler Company, a developer who then asked the Development Authority to approve a tax abatement that could cost the school system over $50 million in tax revenues. Gene finally reported these Sembler contributions AFTER he won the runoff.

Documents are available to review at Atlanta Unfiltered.

Anonymous said...

Crawford's letter to staff supporting James Berry and the asst. principal after they got busted for cheating is the low point of his tenure as superintendent, and there have been a lot of low points over the past few years.

Cerebration said...

Well, he actually got probation - no actual jail time.

Anonymous said...

Way to Go Tom and Dekalb Legislature! Why do the Dekalb County School Board not want a Code of Ethics?

What was the speech from Dr. Walker all about? I hear he had a little problem with ethics when he was in the state legislature himself. I hear he had a little problem himself that the others felt got in his way of being a good representative for Dekalb County. I hear many of the administrators at the county office have had some of the same type problems in the past. Who knows if this is true? Bus barn gossip can be juicy!!!! Those bus drivers know everything.

Anonymous said...


The "Recent Comments" section of your blog seems to not be working (it's blank).

Cerebration said...

Google is working on it - meanwhile, comments will show up as posted in the individual articles, they just aren't showing up on the sidebar right now.

Kim Gokce said...

nice look back on the year, Tom!

Regarding the Comments not appearing ... as a workaround, those desperate to keep up with the comments could subscribe to the RSS at:

Kim Gokce said...

Cere: I went ahead and posted a box upper right with the blog's RSS for comments - I'll take this down when Google restores the comments widget.

Cerebration said...

my hero! thanks Kim!

Anonymous said...

In my religion people who make mistakes are exiled from society and receive no support or understanding from their families, employers, or friends. We don’t trust the courts to provide sufficient punishment; instead we require that there be no possibility of rehabilitation or redemption. That is why I like this blog. You do not need a hood to participate.

Justice In DeKalb said...

Wow! Totally impressed with the succinct and on-point article by Tom! This blog site is one of my few indulgences! For awhile there I thought that I was the only one who actually saw, understood, and was appalled by all that was going on in DeKalb! Thought that I was the only one advocating for the innocent, powerless, voiceless children as these DCSS administrators and et al (Pat /Vincent Pope, Ron Ramsey, Crawford Lewis, Bob Moseley and certain members of the BOE such as Eugene Walker....and let's not forget DeKalbs finest - Ms. Gwen Keyes Fleming) play monopoly with taxpayers money and continue to compromise their quality education. These miscreants carry on as if the "Education" coifers are their very own personal spoils! There is no accountability. There is no transparency. What a shame!

Truth ....SPLOST III monies should also be factored in to this growing figure...

Rumor ....James Berry is related to Crawford Lewis...I was informed that they are cousins...which is why Lewis is attempting to sweep this criminal activity under the rug. Do my old timers remember exactly WHO Berry is? Come on Come on...This is not Berrys first encounter with unethical behavior and doing wrong by the innocent children of DeKalb that he was given the charge to lead......hmmm

Cerebration said...

That has been stated here before, but we have never had proof of it. Also stated - and easily proved - is the fact that Berry profited from working on the movie, "Drumline" filmed in DeKalb.

One stand out quote of Berry from the AJC shows just how emphatically and sincerely liars lie. He even goes so far as to try to throw off the curious by implying that IF cheating occurred, then it was by "the people he chose"...

Asked whether he had any concerns about test security or score validity, Berry said: “Oh my God, I hope not. I know the people that I chose were pretty honest. I would hope that that wasn’t the case. Well, I can honestly say to you that I don’t think that that was the case at all.” ...

At any rate - you may enjoy these old posts - read through the comments -
What is Dr. Lewis thinking?

Test cheating probe...How?

And for an overall review -
A Premier Misrepresentation

Anonymous said...

The next ELPC meeting on Wednesday January 20th at Evansdale Elementary is the legislative forum and Kevin Levitas is scheduled to attend. Plan to come and discuss the Transparency Bill - should be interesting.