Monday, March 4, 2013

Parent Meeting in DeKalb

A public forum for Dunwoody residents was held today with approximately 450 people in attendance.  This will go down as one of the best-attended public forums I've seen in Dunwoody.  The event was well organized, people were civil, questions were asked and answered.  Hats off to the organizers and participants.

The meeting started off with an introduction of local celebrities.  City Council members (Nall, Shortal, Bonser, Heneghan, Thompson,  Deutsch) were all there, as well as State Representative Tom Taylor, State Senator Fran Millar, former school board member Jim Redovian, Brad Bryant (former State school Superintendent, who should have been DeKalb's interim Superintendent) former school board member Don McChesney, DHA President Stacey Harris, Dunwoody's Social Chairwoman Lisa V, Al, Ringo, Sgt Hulka, and many others.  Nancy Jester was there, and when announced, she received a standing ovation from 400 taxpayers.  Name me one prior, current, or suspended school board member or elected official in DeKalb who today can get a standing ovation in their district?  She deserves it, as does Rep Tom Taylor. Too bad Nancy may no longer be on the Board, and too bad we don't have all our elected state officials fighting for her down at the Capitol.  The opposite of that is what is happening.

An alert reader said I was making too much of the Democrat Republican / Conservative Liberal issue.  The reader is correct.  After all, we ALL want what is best for the kids, right?  Well, mostly.  For some it is all about control and power.  And there are 1 billion reasons for control and power in DeKalb. Yes, the DeKalb School System is a $1 billion entity when you factor in all the "free" federal dollars.  And no way would people allow political parties, political philosophy, culture, and race get in the way of educating children. In response to this blog's reader's input, please do not read the text with the strike-through if you don't want to read about political parties and finger pointing. I don't want to appear as angry or upset or disturbed over any of this - it's only 12 or so years of schooling for 100,000 kids - no big deal.  The kids can easily learn all they need in life from Instagram, Facebook, Kik, Pinterest, and the Disney Channel.

 Just like last year when the Democrats in the DeKalb Delegation drew the new school board lines for DeKalb (when the State has a Republican governor and 2/3rds majority in the Senate) the DeKalb delegation will be selecting our new District 1 school board member. I know, there is a selection committee taking applications.  If you really think that is an open and transparent process then I have a 100-acre Old Growth Forest to sell you.  You don't think the Democrats of the DeKalb Delegation don't already have the replacement board members picked?  And if you are expecting a number-crunching, tough-question asking conservative to represent District 1 (Dunwoody) then you have not lived in DeKalb long enough.

Last year when all the political lines were redrawn (every ten years, and new lines were needed for the new school board positions) the DeKalb Democrats got their plan passed.  Why did the Republicans not submit THEIR plan then tell the governor and legislators, "Here it is, this is what we want."?  Instead, the Democrats drew the lines.  Fast forward a year and the Governor needs some guidance on reappointing/selecting  school board members.  So do the Republicans in DeKalb tell the Republican Governor, "Here is what WE want to do, based on our knowledge of the situation and feedback from the voters".  No.  They instead are told by the DeKalb Democrats what to do. The DeKalb Delegation, headed by south DeKalb pols and MMO, are again calling the shots. Must be tough going to work knowing you are owned by a liberal.

Yes, you heard me - the liberal DeKalb Delegation does not want Nancy Jester on the school board, so she will not be reappointed.  The DeKalb Delegation does not want Dr Pam Speaks on the school board, so she will not be reappointed.  The funny part is that Jester and Speaks routinely get positive feedback from parents outside their districts, from south DeKalb.  But Jester and Speaks don't meet the criteria for being a DeKalb School Board member, at least the criteria as put forth by most of the DeKalb Delegation (Delegation = State senators and representatives from DeKalb County).  The Republicans are not really in control on this issue, they just think they are in control.  You will hear calls for a clean slate, a new beginning.  District 1 does not want a clean slate.  District 1 wants Nancy Jester and Pam Speaks on the Board.  These two have voted 'no' time and time again for lawyers.  They brought the financial issues to light.  Yet they have no vocal support from elected officials at the State level - but they do have the support of the voters.  And remember, these voters vote for these same senators and representatives next year.

I was glad to see so many parents of young children at the event today.  A few teachers, local political people, taxpayers, business owners, and even a spy or two from outside of Dunwoody.

The meeting started with Rep Taylor giving a breakdown on his House Bill. He needs 120 votes on the House to agree (2/3rds) then Senator Millar has to work the same magic in the Senate (2/3rds).  If it passes this session, it goes on statewide ballot in 2014.  If the Bill does not get action this session then it does next session, with the issue still going on a state ballot in 2014.  With all the publicity on this issue I think it is best this session.  If DeKalb gets off probation by this time next year (as we expect) then much of the anger will have subsided, along with the press coverage.

The meeting then had some general information on the group known as Dunwoody Parents Concerned about Quality Education, Inc.  The steering group for this entity is comprised of eight peopleTheir web site is in process so be patient and check back in a few days. You can search for their Google Group in the interim.

The Steering committee:
  • Deb Cameron
  • Gil Hearn
  • Allegra Johnson
  • Donna Cannady Nall
  • Rick Otness
  • Heyward Wescott
  • Robert Wittenstein
If you live in Dunwoody you will surely recognize at least one, if not many, of these folks.

Putting legislation aside, this group will work on a feasibility study on the possibility of Dunwoody supporting (financially) its own school district.  Well, not really.  It's no secret the tax dollars generated in Dunwoody will be enough to support a school system. This system would actively recruit the best teachers in Georgia to come here.  And the pay will be near the top.  This is opposite the DeKalb model.  DeKalb does not seek the best teachers - neighboring districts and private schools cherry-pick our best.  DeKalb is all about hiring friends of friend, sorority sisters, etc.  This is a major problem not just in Dunwoody, but across the county.

Back to that study.  The study is needed to show the State legislators the financial impact a new school system would have on existing districts.  The City of Dunwoody will most likely vote to pay for the study.  Any council person voting "no" does not get re-elected and risks losing a seat on the July 4th parade float.

A study may cost between $10,000 and $15,000 and will show Dunwoody needs $70 million to run its own district and, at the current millage rate, brings in close to $130 million.  If we had a Dunwoody Independent School District we could cut the school taxes by 25%.  This means we could be home to the McEachern of DeKalb.  It also means less money for the others in DeKalb.  If this happens, DeKalb School System would need to finally get its finances in order and run more efficiently.

The forum also discussed the option of charters and charter clusters.  A conversion charter school (Peachtree Middle) means nothing but extra letters on the spirit wear clothing.  And it creates a better cheer for the middle school cheerleaders.  Without the 'charter', the school's cheerleaders would be yelling "PMS, PMS" through red, white, and blue megaphones. That would be embarrassing.  The school staff still lives in fear of the central office, local parents have no say and no power.  The checkbook is still controlled by the central office.  In my opinion a conversion charter is no better than being a regular school.  If someone wants to write a piece on why Peachtree is better as a conversion charter, send it over and I will publish it.

The school Portfolio option was mentioned.  Go see Nancy Jester's blog for details.

Although not yet a law, the Parent Trigger option was not mentioned.  Too bad.  If the Parent Trigger Bill passes (after it is tweaked), a group of parent can take over a Dunwoody school next year, controlling the money and all that goes with it.  You elect a local board, hire the staff, choose textbooks, everything.  A strong Parent Trigger law is our best hope as of now.

The Dan Weber cluster idea was mentioned as well.  This is Plan C.  If Tom Taylor's item fails and the Parent Trigger fails, then we go to Plan C.

There was some lively discussion at the forum, nearly all positive.  Senator Fran Millar, jokingly saying SACS is a four-letter word, said SACS leader Mark Elgart  "has had enough" on the DeKalb issue.  Well, Elgart has been here working with DeKalb for ten years - what took so long?  A little intervention five years ago and we avoid this mess?  Senator Millar said the governor has done everything he has asked of him the past two months (on this school board issue).  For all of you readers please see Item #5 on the list below.

Hopefully the 450 people at the forum stays energized.  Hopefully the group grows to 4500 people.

Now that you are engaged, what can you do?

#1 - email Michael Thurmond , interim school superintendent, and let him know you want all DeKalb high schools to be able to get their own accreditation from Georgia Accrediting Commission.

#2 - Call Governor Deal's Chief of Staff at (404) 656-1776 (Chris Riley) and request he reappoint Pam Speaks and Nancy Jester

#3 - email Tom Taylor and volunteer to help lobby for the Bill he proposed in the State House

#4 - get involved at one of the local schools as a volunteer

#5 - email Fran Millar's assistant and ask the senator to support Nancy Jester and Pam Speaks

You are mad, worried, upset, involved, willing to work, etc.  You can sit around and do nothing or you can do the items above.  Your choice.  

There are lots of moving parts to this drama.  We await word from a Federal judge.  We await to hear again from Representative Taylor.  We await a study on the feasibility of an independent school system.  We await word from SACS on accreditation (May 2013).  We await word on single-school accreditation. 

Those of you in DeKalb but not in Dunwoody, you need to be calling and emailing Superintendent Thurmond on high school accreditation.  Arabia Mountain, Chamblee, Southwest DeKalb parents - get motivated on this issue. You want to work together as one?  Let's do it on high school accreditation. 

Don't get all excited on the accreditation issue.  Having SACS accreditation does not lower the class sizes at Peachtree, Kingsley, or Chesnut.  it does not improve the quality of teachers in the buildings.  It does not give you local control.  We need to keep looking for a way out.



  1. Rick,
    Thanks for your reporting. I'd like to mention one more thing parents can do if they are short on time...donate 25 or 50 bucks to I've only meet one member of the steering committee a few years back at the pool. I have no "insider track or agenda".
    We need to get this study funded and complete within the next 7-9 months. Kudos to the DHA for pitching in, and it appears the City may do the same. It would be a solid indicator of community support if we could raise double the amount needed in small, family donations.

  2. Dwoody Talk-
    Thanks for your reporting and genuine concern.
    One thing I'd like to add for those people who may be short on time to volunteer: A donation to 50 or 25 bucks.
    I have no affiliation with the group and have only met one member years ago a the pool.
    We need to fund this study and have it ready within 7-9 months. Kudos to the DHA for chipping in, and the City Council's willingness to cover the difference. If 500 families contribute $50 bucks not only will we cover the costs, but also display solid community support.
    I'm in for $100, how about everyone else?