CHCA VP Charlie Bleau, on behalf of the entire CHCA board, sent a set of seven questions to both district 2 candidates for election July 31 to the Board of Education, incumbent Don McChesney and challenger Marshall Orson. They both responded at length.
Marshall Orson: Georgia and other states were granted the right to find alternative means to successfully educating children without incurring the punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind. Accountability is the key component of this waiver. DeKalb is still responsible for educating its children. DeKalb, which has one of the highest numbers of failing schools in Georgia, should focus on fixing its broken schools and leave greater operational control to principals of successful schools. Ironically, DeKalb could have taken this approach under NCLB but instead chose to ignore the problem of failing schools by primarily offering transfers out of those schools. This approach was fully embraced by the current BOE which ended up leaving failing schools severely under populated and successful schools overcrowded and at risk of becoming failing schools. With the focus now on individual schools, we can and should allocate resources to turn around failing schools rather than simply abandon them.
Don McChesney: NCLB or ESEA is basically gone. The curriculum department has completely redesigned the curriculum. Now everyone will be doing the same thing across the district. That means that each grade and subject level will be approximately in the same place. No more teachers doing their own thing sometimes without structure. The curriculum change is the best operational move we could make. We also will be able to monitor a child's progress as we have benchmark assessments. The graduation rate will now be used as more of a check on progress. It will be more like the NCAA uses for college athletes. You will be tracked from the time you enter the ninth grade. If you do not finish or drop out before your graduation date four years hence the system will be penalized. Many of the specifics of this new approach have not been worked out by the state yet. Everything has to be aligned to the Common Core Standards.
Don McChesney: Because of our need to further fund the last projects in SPLOST III we will be moving at a slower pace on SPLOST IV. The superintendent has suggested that we start no project until the money has been collected to finish that individual project. I agree with her. It will be pay as you go. No borrowing. In order to maximize the most for each school we are moving toward a system used by Gwinnett County. Instead of building each school as a boutique type school we are trying to have one basic plan for each elementary school, a plan for Middle Schools, and a plan for high schools. This will enable us to save large sums of money in architecture fees. All building must comply with state standards of classroom size etc. Since Fernbank will be a 900 student size facility it may be prudent to see if an alternate site from its current location is available. Commissioner Rader suggested to me that a study be done to see if the infrastructure at the current location can handle the larger school and increased traffic. I think it is wise to at least investigate these views so we have solid information before we proceed. Commissioner Rader, I believe, has given us wise counsel on this issue.
Marshall Orson: The location of the new building for Fernbank is a closed question as the plan, according to DCSD’s Planning Department, is for the replacement of Fernbank at its current location – a location that most closely satisfies state Department of Education requirements for acreage necessary for the intended size and enrollment of the school. Since the SPLOST plan was approved by voters, the BOE should have little input in the process and the Administration should have primary responsibility for the design. With regard to external features, the goal should be for the facility to blend in with the community and the Administration should seek community input in this regard. However, we must ultimately empower the professional staff to make decisions.
Marshall Orson: As DCSD struggles though challenging financial times, it is important to maintain a diversity of institutions and educational approaches which meet a variety of academic needs. Avondale MS is a suitable facility for housing a comprehensive school of the arts. Under the SPLOST IV schedule proposed by the DCSD Chief Operating Officer, the conversion of that facility will occur after first housing displaced schools . With regard to other unused or underused properties, DCSD should dispose of those properties where opportunities exist. For example, there is an interested buyer for a substantial portion of the North Druid Hills property. The buyer does not want the stadium but does want to build a medical facility to serve VA outpatients. Not only is this a laudable use but it would mean immediate cash to DCSD from the purchase and on-going revenue since a private entity would build the facility and the property would therefore be subject to property tax assessments. Unfortunately, several board members oppose such a sale based on previously inflated estimates of the value of the property (which they opposed selling) and hypothetical future scenarios for building a new high school where no study supports such construction and which would require the unacceptable closing of Druid Hills HS. DCSD must set realistic numbers for unused properties and work to dispose of them over the next three to five years.
Don McChesney: The former Avondale MS is still in our plans. It will eventually house both DESA and DSA. It will also be considered as a place to house Fernbank Elementary while construction is going on. This building will have ongoing use. It is in good shape and has a large capacity. Right now Briarcliff High is vacant. It is being used to film some television series. We have an offer of $10 million for the property. Four years ago it was valued at $60 million by Sembler. It is the second most valuable piece of property that the school system owns. I believe it is terribly undervalued at $10 million. I would not favor selling that property. I also believe that in the not too distant future that we will need to renovate the building for use as a high school of some kind. Right now our unused properties have basically no market. It is impossible to predict a timeline that is so tied to the economy.
Don McChesney: On the Heery issue. I am limited to what I can say. I have seen the evidence on the case. We can definitely prove that the county taxpayer was "ripped off" to the tune of $100 million. If one saw the evidence I have I believe I would be violating my fiduciary responsibility to not try to make the taxpayer whole. This suit was started before I came on the BOE. I was skeptical until I saw the evidence. I know our case is good, but no one can predict what a jury will say. The school system has been ready to go to court for 3 years. All the delays have been imposed by the court, not the BOE. The BOE budget was not really increased. The legal fees were moved to the Board's budget in the papers some have seen. It was previously listed as other on the budget. It is the BOE that has requested that expenditures get their own line items so there will be more transparency. The cuts that must be made in the budget are Draconian. We have looked at every possible place to find more money. Cuts are being made in almost all areas. The central office is being drastically cut. I have asked the superintendent to actually come out with a clearly understandable document of percentage, number of people, and money being cut. I do not know what her response is to that yet. I have one area I will not compromise on. I will not ask for a millage rate increase. Until I know that our budget cuts are as streamlined as possible, I will not look for a millage increase. Next years budget will also probably be a problem. I believe we will have to go to the millage rate then in order to move on.
Marshall Orson: The Heery Mitchell lawsuit is a travesty and a prime example of failure of oversight by the BOE. Having already cost $37 million and dependent upon two indicted former school system personnel as DCSD’s primary witnesses, even the DeKalb Grand Jury believes there is little chance for success and cites this lawsuit as major example of the BOE’s failure to properly oversee the school system’s finances. The BOE will claim that the increase in its budget is due to including legal fees in the BOE budget but that begs the question of why we are spending so much on legal fees in the first place. Even assuming that the underlying factual basis of the Heery Mitchell lawsuit had merit or a meaningful chance of success, it is inexplicable that a Board, charged with being good stewards of taxpayer dollars intended for the education of DeKalb children, would hire the most expensive law firm in Atlanta and then exercise no reasonable oversight regarding the attorney’s fees and expenses relative to the actual value of the lawsuit. With respect to legal issues and legal expenses, this Board has made the wrong decision at every turn.
With regard to more transparency, the introduction of zero based budgeting is a start. Further, the school system should provide extensive annotations of budget line items outlining not only the costs of a program but the benefits (e.g. students served, expected impact on student performance) and projected consequences of eliminating or reducing a program.
Unfortunately, the current budget situation is a result not only of the current financial situation but of the on-going failure of the BOE to properly oversee the budget. This failure has constrained the choices available to DeKalb. Nevertheless, we need to continue to cut central office expenses while optimizing the use of resources (e.g. transportation, outsourcing security to DeKalb County of the cable channel to an outside entity). At the same time, and as referenced above, every budget decision should be analyzed not only for its costs but the benefits derived from a program and the consequences arising from the elimination or reduction of a program.
Marshall Orson: The BOE must act wisely. The Grand Jury detailed the fiscal mismanagement by the BOE, citing examples by various board members. Though it is likely the BOE did not always receive information it needed, it is also true that the BOE rarely asked questions or undertook the kind of rigorous work needed to make informed decisions. For example, none of the current BOE members noticed that in the SPLOST accounting there was no provision for interest expense even though the school system issued bonds. The current BOE has supported the massive expenditure of legal fees on the Heery Mitchell lawsuit and the allocation of $100,000 for Crawford Lewis’s legal defense when such allocation may have violated board policy. The BOE needs to act transparently and responsibly. The BOE continually hides behind the excuse of following the advice of counsel while forgetting that counsel works for the school system and not the reverse. Counsel may advise, but ultimately the BOE is responsible for deciding upon a course of action.
Don McChesney: The BOE does not mind being investigated. My experience with the Grand Jury made me realize that public perception is everything. I saw that every article in the AJC and news reports were taken as factual. I can only say that the facts were not always correct. I cannot make people believe anything they do not want to believe, but there is always another side of the story. The BOE definitely needs to be proactive instead of reactive. We are working on that issue now with our director of communications. When you have specific questions please call me. I will answer them to the best of my ability. 404-664-2458.
Don McChesney: It might be interesting to note that Cobb County is on the exact same step as DeKalb in regard to accreditation. That is accredited under advisement.The media does not seem to take them on. I can only wonder why.The BOE has completed almost all of the issues SACS asked us to work on. All school systems are at their mercy as to the schedule toward the next step. Single board members are prohibited by SACS and the state from acting as an individual. A board member cannot change any policy unless they get 5 votes for their initiative. I believe board members can try to build consensus to finally reach a policy decision, but as an individual we are prohibited from speaking for the board. I also believe that we should now investigate other accrediting agencies. We pay SACS $85,000 a year for their "services". If we just accredit our High Schools which is what is important, we could save enough to employ another teacher.
Marshall Orson: The behavior of the BOE was a primary factor in SACS’ refusal to improve the accreditation status of DeKalb. In large part this was due to a lack of consensus governing by the BOE. The best systems tend to govern by consensus but even with the selection of a qualified Superintendent, three board members refused to support her appointment. Each board member must reach out to other board members to find common ground and a shared vision of success for our students. A BOE, and therefore a school system, will fail when board members are more interested in playing to divisions rather than finding consensus and coalescing around a Superintendent’s vision for success.
Marshall Orson: The first step is to agree on a shared vision of success for all students. As mentioned above, to achieve this objective, a BOE needs to coalesce around and support the vision of the Superintendent (while still holding her accountable). This vision must expect that all children will have the opportunity for a high quality education. At the same time, board members cannot focus on divisive issues which ensure that no consensus can be achieved. Second, the school system needs to focus on turning around failing schools while allowing successful schools more independence and meaningful school-based decision-making. Third, we cannot afford a one size fits all mentality. Instead, we must match resources to the needs of communities and specific schools. We must establish a baseline for all schools but then allow schools to innovate and reach beyond that baseline to achieve even greater success.
Don McChesney: Nothing else matters if we do not increase student achievement. The Superintendent is changing leadership in the office and in the schools. She realizes that leadership in our buildings is the most important factor in raising achievement. We are looking to hire only the best teachers as places become available. Our new curriculum leader Dr. Kathy Howe is revamping the entire approach. To continue what was not working is truly the definition of insanity. Many of these changes are people from outside of the DeKalb system.