Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Big Picture

Things are not going well in DeKalb County Georgia. Here at DeKalb School Watch, we focus on the schools, however our county leadership is also failing miserably. I'm certain many of you received Burrell Ellis' recent email announcing that we are essentially broke and he will not only cut services, but raise property taxes. County CEO Burrell Ellis publicly shares his economic concerns, setting the scene for a tax increase, yet it's been widely reported that he doled out raises to his staff during the worst recession in recent history. Ellis also completely ignored the Georgia State recommendations to decrease staffing as their research showed our county to be overstaffed by 900.

Here are some excerpts from Burrell's email to residents:

Because DeKalb County is largely residential, we have been especially impacted by the collapse of the housing market. This situation has been exacerbated by our high number of mortgage foreclosures, and the creation of a new city with a corresponding annexation of commercial property.

Early reports from our Tax Assessor's Office indicate that our real estate values are declining more than expected. As a result, we anticipate an additional $25 million revenue reduction.

[In addition,] because of our cash flow problem, one of the two top rating agencies has withdrawn the county's bond rating. Without a bond rating, the county would be unable to meet its ordinary short-term obligations and to take the long-term actions necessary to repair and maintain our infrastructure. More importantly, just like with your credit rating, a withdrawn or downgraded rating means that every DeKalb citizen will pay even more for county services.

The school system mirrors the county in dysfunction, albeit, the school system's dysfunction is much more harmful to the future of it's most vulnerable citizens - our children. You may or may not be aware that Gene Walker leads the charge to also raise school taxes on your property bills. School taxes account for over 60% of your annual property taxes. Our school board manages a much, much larger budget than our county commissioners. All told, the school board annually manages over $1.2 Billion (with a "B") PLUS about a half-billion in SPLOST construction funds from the additional penny sales tax DeKalb voters approved several years ago. We all know where the board's lax oversight of those funds have led - to a superintendent and COO of construction's criminal indictments.

Our school system is not healthy. As a system, we have not made AYP for six years. Our schools are wildly out of equity in the education they offer. For example, at a recent board meeting, we learned that Lakeside students have traveled to compete at the "We the People" national civics competition, yet only 35 of 945 students at Cedar Grove MS passed the mock CRCT.  In fact, only 62.4% of our schools made AYP last year. (Click here for GA DOE report.)

We have uncovered other inequities recently. (Click here to read our post on the huge range of per pupil funding.) For example, the school board spent a lot of money for trailers to house students requesting an AYP transfer from failing schools to Arabia High School — only those trailers for students now considered Arabia students, were placed at Lithonia High School — one of the failing schools sending the transfers! Fights have recently been reported between the now rival students.

The excuse the board used was that Arabia would be over-crowded. We researched that and found it not only not to be true but that the board has allowed these transfers to seriously overcrowd Lakeside, which now has a population of over 1,800 in a building with a capacity for 1,300. There is no rhyme or reason to their decision-making other than political pressure. The board doesn't field data and real information, they listen and respond to the loud cacophony of each community's myopic desires. The meek do not inherit a dime.

The Arabia community is mostly comprised of theme school parents who demand that this school be held out as elite and special. It was built with the stated reason being to relieve overcrowding, yet it has become a very special place, requiring uniforms, applications and a high GPA. This school creates a very special track for parents who wish to keep their children away from regular public schools, and in an atmosphere of success, yet as we have seen in Sarah Copelin Wood's district, this kind of foucs on themes, magnets and other specialty schools only serves to harm the neighborhood schools further. Several in Woods' district will now have to close several schools due to the mass exodus of area students to these specialty schools. (For a full report, read our post entitled "North vs Central vs South - what's the deal?")

Now, our school board has completely blown it's search for a superintendent. What happened recently is nearly criminal, in my opinion. Many people speculate that this meltdown in securing one of the final three contenders (all three dropped out) was a political manipulation done behind the scenes by several in power who want to maintain the status quo. Think about it. Who stands to lose the most if a new superintendent comes in and streamlines the administration, legal and contracted departments? Those with jobs and contracts to protect. Who stands to lose the most with the status quo? Your children.

If you want to see positive change in the performance of our schoolchildren, please click the link on the right side panel and email the entire board asking them to follow the wishes of the people as revealed in the original survey regarding a new superintendent. The people spoke. We do not want a DeKalb insider. Keep searching. Find a qualified leader who will focus on streamlining systems and improving education. And while you're at it, keep your mouths shut to the media.


pscexb said...

Congratulations to Charles S. Pennell and John K. Ewing, both of Lakeside High. I read they were 2 from more than 15,000 finalists in the country to receive National Merit Scholarships. Students throughout DeKalb are achieving and receiving recognitions for their accomplishments. Thanks also to many fine teachers in our classrooms helping our children to reach their potentials.

Cerebration said...

Jeff Rader's comment regarding the county budget is appropriate for the school system as well,

Now that the county is forced to tighten its belt, the foundation for updating its operational model cannot be the gut feelings or educated guesses of the administration's leaders.

The school system also operates by gut feelings or happenstance. They often don't seek and digest real information. Test scores tell the story. Our schools are imbalanced. We need a leader who cares about that and who will get the schools back into what our biology teachers call homeostasis.

Cerebration said...

Correct you are, psc. Our students who are succeeding are doing so due to the efforts of their teachers as well as their involved parents = along with a personal discipline.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. I hope you will all communicate directly to your teachers how much you appreciate them. They are working very hard under difficult circumstances.

fedupindcss said...

If the board goes with Tyson, that's all she wrote. If they can't be recalled, they should be voted out at the first opportunity. They waste time, money, and resources with an abandon that is breathtaking. If Tyson continues as superintendent, it will be telling the parents and taxpayers of Dekalb that they JUST DON'T CARE. Sorry for the caps, but can't express it any other way.

pscexb: they are, but it's in spite of DCSS, not because of it. Sorry, that's true, too.

LaLaMeeka Chadwalli said...

You know, Richard Belcher could have made the decision not to run with the Cox story. I am so disappointed in him, I used to be a fan. Now, just disappointed. All of these students affected because someone got used as a tool to further an agenda. It's sad, so sad.

Anon said...

Cox wasn't coming --she interviewed with Cobb while she was negotiating with us.

Several years ago, I saw Elaine Boyer chew out a constituent who opined that DeKalb was just a bedroom community. She was insistent that was wrong. Now read ellis' words.

Ella Smith said...

We the People is funded by fundraising and funds from the PTA, etc.

This is an activity that could be available throughout the county. However, these students must be willing to spend the time, money, and work hard to be a part of this group in my opinion.

This could occur at any school with the backing of a teacher, the students with sufficient academic abilities and the will to work hard to raise funds in order to participate at this event each year.

There is nothing unfair about starting a program like this. It just take the effort and the ability of the students to compete.

fedupindcss said...

Perhaps if the school system didn't waste money on fruitless superintendent searches or over paid central office staff, there could be funding available for students from all the schools to attend such worthy extracurricular events.

Point is, they waste money. Belcher was pawned (all that work that Sally has done for the school system up in smoke with one story). And the kids suffer. This isn't rocket science, folks.

sharon said...

The board may take the survey into account but they can not abdicate their responsiblity or judgement in selecting a superintendent. They must take the best person available regardless. The survey is informative but does not in anyway represent the will of the people-only the people who are active or have computer access.

Jo Newman Russler said...

So, I sent this to all the DCSS Board Members. Do you think any of them will actually read it? "Dear DCSS Board Members. I am writing to you as a taxpayer, parent of three graduates from DCSS and an attorney. Please do an honest and ethical nation-wide search for a superintendent. Please use a different search firm. And, please behave responsibly and ethically, keeping the interests of the entire system, and not your own political agendas, as your top priority. Show us the respect we want to be able to show you. Thank you. JoAnn Newman Russler

GetDailyReport said...

CERE, you have to get your hands on today's Daily Report. The entire article is worth posting on the blog--every bit of it. Awful...we are being made to look like fools!

fedupindcss said...

GetDaily: can you summarize? The Daily Report is behind a pay wall.

Anonymous said...

DeKalb County borrowed $41 million from its pension fund to pay for early retirement of 800 employees instead of firing them Then 600 of the 800 were hired back to (allegedly) do the work. The pension fund is underfunded by over $100 million or maybe even more. I could go on but it makes no difference

County population has increased by only 4% from 2000 to 2010 but employee count is up by about 30%. I think that DCSS has similar numbers for its student population and employee count.

Raising taxes for either the County or DCSS is like giving a drug addict more heroin. Nothing good will come of it. Taxpayers are just involuntary enablers as their hard earned money is extracted from them to keep both job banks operating.

Unknown said...

The Daily Report article is entitled: DA: Bad Faith in schools case. It is about the DeKalb DA's response to a mandamus petition filed by King & Spalding/DCSS (essentially a civil case against the DA). The petition seeks to force the DA to turn over docs to K&S in the DA's possession before these docs are turned over to the court/Heery in the civil case (Heery filed a non-party request for docs to which the DA must respond). According to the DA, there is no legal support for this notion.

Here are some of the quotes from the DA's response that were in the article:

"DeKalb DA Robert D. James wrote that King & Spalding and the school district engaged in disingenuous legal reasoning: 'as with the 'confusion' over adequate remedies at would seem that this Court continues to experience delays due to such 'legal missteps.'"

"The paucity of documents produced and the improper redacting of documents that were provided forced the District Attorney to obtain search warrants to properly investigate its case."

"The school district 'merely incants 'privilege' failing to identify any particulars.'"

"K&S took one 'desultory swipe' at privilege when it alleged that the DA's office was cooperating with Heery, as the DA produced some of the allegedly privileged documents..."

The docs produced were apparently affidavits from a whistleblower (a lawyer "working as a compliance officer with the school district.") DA says the affidavit is in no way covered by atty-client priv.--K&S apparently made this argument in filing the petition.

DA attacks K&S allegation of collusion with Heery with, "This tapestry of vitriol is unsupported by anything other than fear and suspicion and is patently false." "Such acrimony is indicative of counsel who not only files suit without legal justification, but who has also lost objectivity."

DA: "Applying those principles to this case would lead to one, inescapable conclusion: The school district 'is wrong, they know it and went forward anyway.'"

fedupindcss said...

I like that last quote: "The school district was wrong, they know it, and went forward anyway." That could be the new mission statement for DCSS! It perfectly captures everything they do, from coordinating curricula to ordering toilet paper. Cere, you need to do a mock up of that for the top of the blog.

Cerebration said...

I don't have this new article from the Daily yet, but the quote from a previous one is interesting to note. Simply because this company, MGT, was dismissed by Dr. Lewis, however, is the company Tyson and the board recently hired to do the redistricting research.

In 2006, Lewis asked the school board to vote to replace an auditor that had given Heery/Mitchell a glowing report the previous year, telling the board the move was "an emergency," according to the plaintiffs.

MGT of America in May 2005 reported that "an overall on-time and within budget completion in the face of a nearly 20 percent funding shortfall is evidence of the professionalism and experience of the Heery/Mitchell Joint Venture."

"The [school system] is to be commended for hiring a competent agency representative," MGT concluded.

Anon said...

Let's not forget that it was CLew who asked Gwen Keys to investigate Pat Pope to instigate the criminal action in the first place. I believe that he thought that he could "control" things based on his relationship with Gwen. I also think that Hank Johnson interevened to pull Gwen Keyes off the case and into EPA.

David Montané said...

From Burrell Ellis's e-mail: "At the same time, I have pushed for the completion of new recreation centers, libraries and infrastructure projects to create jobs and lay the framework for a robust economic recovery."

Does building new libraries and recreation centers, only to close some of them down, make any sense?

Will someone who has his ear please inform Mr. Ellis that spending more tax money only creates temporary jobs, adds to our budget overruns and public indebtedness, and delays the return to a "robust economic recovery."

He must be taking his cues from the federal government / Federal Reserve, which owns the money printing press and so can pass on the debt to an unsuspecting (although becoming less so recently) public in the form of inflation.

Dekalbparent said...

The new and renovated libraries were funded by a bond issued passed by DeKalb voters in 2006. I can't see where Mr. Ellis can take credit for it.

At the same time, the DeKalb County library system has been stripped of funds by the current county administration - the acquisitions budget (new books, media materials, subscriptions to periodicals, newspapers and research databases) has been reduced 80% this year to $100,000 for all the libraries in the entire county.

In addition, the county's budget cuts forced a delay in the openings of the four new libraries Mr. Ellis takes credit for because the DeKalb Library system could not afford to staff them. These libraries are now going to open with skeleton staffs (same as the currently open libraries - DeKalb library staff has been reduced by about 35% in the last year) only because the DeKalb Library system dropped two of its popular countywide programs, as well as education programs at local branches. The new Scott Candler branch is in limbo because it needs a minimum of four to staff it, and there is no more money in the budget to pay for them.

So, as far as I am concerned, Mr. Ellis is blowing a whole lotta smoke!

Cerebration said...

oh for crying out loud... no wonder the commissioners think they have to raise taxes - they have no idea that they aren't collecting the fees the county is entitled to!

$60 Million In DeKalb Revenue Uncollected

Investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer uncovered more than $60 million in uncollected revenue. The commissioners did not know about the uncollected revenue until Fleischer showed them.

DeKalb County is currently in a major budget crunch and is considering raising taxes. Commissioners voted to privatize the county’s entire ambulance operation to tackle setbacks, but Channel 2 found nearly $16 million uncollected in the past three years in that industry alone.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t collect things that are actually due,” said Elaine Boyer, DeKalb County commissioner.

More than $21 million worth of water bills went unpaid by homeowners and renters.

“We just raised rates, and we may not have to do that possibly if we had been able to collect all those past dues,” Boyer said.

teacher said...

I saw this last night and my blood was boiling. It's so much easier for the politicians in DeKalb (school board included) to raise taxes than to actually look at how they are spending money. The county will never change, until this mentality changes.

Cerebration said...

The people at DeKalb Officer's Speak are not happy about this uncollected giant pile of money. They are being asked to make sacrifices in their department (sacrifices which can only harm community security) - yet our county employees cannot even see their way clear to COLLECT what we are DUE! NO - the "go to" solution is the same one Gene Walker adheres to -- just go and get more money from the taxpayers!

When Is Recovering 60 Million Dollars NOT feasible?

Cerebration said...

Burrell Ellis' response to the recent reports of under collected fees in DeKalb -

Dear Neighbors,

The recent coverage by the news media of uncollected accounts receivable in DeKalb County is both incorrect and misleading. The coverage distorts the facts and falsely states that there is a substantial amount of recoverable debt.

The facts of the matter are as follows:

The County does have appropriate procedures in place to address accounts receivable on an on-going basis, including the placement of liens against property for unpaid services.
The County's collections ratios are generally equal or higher than the average for comparable jurisdictions. The County's collection rate for water & sewer service is very high. For the 1st quarter of this year, the collection rate averages 98.42%. That result, given the impact of the recession and the high number of foreclosures in the County, is outstanding.
The County is in the process of awarding a new contract for collection services that provides for an aggressive collection effort on those accounts that are deemed uncollectable through the County's normal processes. The contract award recommendation is currently being processed by our Purchasing Department for submission to the Board of Commissioners.
The media coverage fails to indicate that the collections for certain services by all counties are controlled by the very nature of the service. For example, the collection rate for services associated with medical transportation is historically low, reflecting the fact that a high percentage of individuals transported do not have insurance. Notwithstanding, the County's collection rate in this area is above the national average. The County also utilizes a private company to both bill clients and collect outstanding amounts.

The media coverage also fails to disclose the time frame of the accumulated debt. A substantial portion of the debt goes back several years and has been properly accounted for as "uncollectable."

Notwithstanding our current high performance regarding collections of accounts receivable, we will not rest on our laurels. Our administration remains committed to pursuing an aggressive accounts receivable policy, both through our internal procedures and through the use of appropriate private collections efforts.


Burrell Ellis
Your DeKalb County CEO

Cerebration said...

WSB TV response.

"In response to CEO Burrell Ellis’ email regarding our reporting on DeKalb County’s uncollected revenue, we stand by our story.

The report was neither incorrect, nor misleading. In fact, the numbers were all provided by DeKalb County government officials after we filed open records requests. We computed the totals.

For example, the 2010 Water Department document shows a collection rate is 93.95%, not 97% as indicated by the finance director in Tuesday’s budget meeting. The “AR Balance” column is the uncollected revenue rolled forward from previous months and years. You will see as of 12/2010 the total was 43.9 million, exactly as we reported.

County Commissioners have already moved to privatize the entire ambulance transport operation for the county, specifically because the revenue collection percentage is known to be so low.

Recorder’s Court Chief Judge Nelly Withers supplied the data regarding the uncollected fees from probationers who failed to complete the program.

The procedures of sending letters to collect bills (which Ellis references in his email) was deemed not to be enough by three county commissioners during Tuesday’s budget meeting. See video clip below. During the meeting, Commissioner Elaine Boyer questions Finance Director Joel Gottlieb regarding the matter of a collections firm. His answers and her responses eventually end with him acknowledging that there is no collections firm in place currently.

There is also an exchange in the video between Boyer and Richard Stogner, where he indicates that a portion of the uncollected revenue should be written-off because it is several years old. You can watch the commissioners’ response to that suggestion.

Lastly, the clip includes Budget Chairman Lee May discussing his thoughts about the revenue that remains uncollected, and the need for a collections firm and accompanying policy.

CEO Ellis may disagree with the commissioners over whether a collections firm is the best avenue to collect the county’s revenue. However, the uncollected dollar amounts we reported are accurate".