Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dunwoody Reporter Column

Here's my column in this week's Dunwoody Reporter:

A Dunwoody View: One school superintendent not enough for DeKalb schools

By Rick Callihan

Later this year, we’ll have at least one new face at DeKalb County School meetings as the current school board is soon to decide on a new superintendent. But, come next year, will the school board be smaller?

This week, our state lawmakers may shrink DeKalb’s school board from nine to seven members. If the school board does get reduced by two members, the Dunwoody cluster will have less representation than it does today.

The Dunwoody area is represented by our District 1 representative (Nancy Jester) and a super-district representative (Pamela Speaks), accounting for two of nine members. By reducing the board to seven members, Dunwoody has one voice among seven.

Reducing the board by two members will not increase student learning and will not change nepotism at the central office. Voters in DeKalb had the opportunity to make changes to the school board makeup last November, but reelected controversial board members back to office by large majorities. If legislators want to truly improve school boards, they’ll need to include some sort of qualifications to hold the office.

For those seeking improvement in the leadership at DeKalb schools, hope only lies in the choice of a new superintendent. The school board has narrowed its search to three candidates, and a new superintendent could be named as soon as this week. But for real change, I think we need more than just one new superintendent. We need an overhaul of the school system’s organizational structure.
A new superintendent, a person from outside the district, is a good start, but perhaps the district needs three superintendents, all with different qualifications.

With 100,000 students, 15,000 employees and a budget of nearly $1.5 billion, the DeKalb school system needs more than a small-district superintendent from Illinois or Hickory, N.C.

To start, we need a Superintendent of Curriculum. The ideal candidate would come from outside DeKalb and have extensive experience in curriculum development, student assessment, and a track record of implementing successful programs for a variety of students. Students in DeKalb vary greatly in need, and the county school system needs to do its best to address the needs. Whether it’s vocational schools, college prep programs or virtual classrooms, DeKalb’s new Superintendent of Curriculum would have a professional staff to review what’s needed. I’d first suggest a change to teaching math in traditional fashion.

Superintendent No. 2 would be in charge of personnel and internal affairs, including a bloated central office. The first task is a desk-to-desk review of every position at the ‘palace,’ also known as the Administrative and Instructional Complex, in Stone Mountain.
It’s no secret that nepotism is the rule of the land when it comes to the DeKalb school system. Positions are filled not necessarily with the best candidates, but rather by relatives and friends. Superintendent No. 2 would also be charged with evaluating and, as necessary, removing ineffective employees. Is this really a full-time permanent job? Perhaps not permanent, but it’s a task that could take a couple of years to complete.
Finally, we have Superintendent No. 3. This person would be responsible for all financial matters.
From establishing central office salaries to fixating on spending per student costs, the Superintendent of Finance would be hailed as a hero of the taxpayers. The school district cannot afford to fight $100 million lawsuits and pay millions of dollars in legal fees. That money is needed for teacher pay, classroom supplies, and school repairs. By having a dedicated superintendent overseeing how taxpayer money is spent (and how the system can fully take advantage of the state’s funding system), perhaps we can avoid future lawsuits and fraud while earning the voters’ trust.
Of course the cost for three superintendents would be three times the cost of one, but managing the school system well would pay dividends many times over. Although I doubt the current school board would entertain the idea of hiring not one but three superintendents, I hope the board will select a person for superintendent who will not only do what is right for DeKalb taxpayers, but what is also right for DeKalb students.

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