At a community input meeting for DeKalb County Schools’ new superintendent search Nov. 6, attendees expressed lack of trust in the district and called for a leader strong enough to reform an era of administrative turnovers, financial problems and transparency disputes. Only about 20 people attended the meeting at Chamblee Charter High School amid concerns about spotty notice and a desire for a bigger community role in the hiring.
“I’m just looking for someone who is there for the kids and is forward-thinking,” said Anna Cross, a Dunwoody parent of a Vanderlyn Elementary student, after the meeting. She was among several attendees who said the hiring process needs more community input.
“I think it’s just a scam,” said Sandra Holmes, a member of Restore DeKalb, an activist group that frequently challenges the district and the DeKalb Board of Education on financial and transparency issues. “And with the school board making the final decision, we can forget it.”
R. Stephen Green, the current superintendent, has resigned effective June 30, 2020. BWP and Associates, an Illinois-based firm specializing in school administrator searches, is leading the hunt for new superintendent candidates, with the Board of Education making the final choice. Besides a series of community meetings Nov. 6 and 7, BWP is taking input through Nov. 20 via a survey available on the DeKalb Schools website. Detailed comments can be emailed to Kevin Castner, one of BWP’s directors, at email@example.com.
How the search works
Castner also led the Chamblee High community meeting, where he outlined a search process that is expected to culminate in the board’s hiring of a new superintendent before Green’s term expires.
BWP will combine comments from the community meetings with input from private meetings with groups from the school, civic and business communities. In the first week of December, BWP will submit a report to the school board featuring a “leadership profile” of the type of candidate that district stakeholders want. The board can alter that profile as well. The report will be public and the comments within it can be updated if they are incorrect, Castner said.
Meanwhile, BWP is also handling the application process for superintendent candidates, which has a Dec. 14 deadline. “We already have two-dozen candidates. That’s pretty significant,” Castner said. All of the candidates’ identities are confidential at this point.
Castner said BWP will vet the candidates, including with “deep Googles” and “background checks, probably with a private investigator,” and compare them with the leadership profile. The firm expects to recommend four to six candidates to the school board in early January. The school board will select its final candidate, whose identity will become public, and a two-week comment period will come before any hiring.
Castner asked attendees not to publicly suggest any specific candidate for the job, saying those could be emailed to him instead, and no one did.
Public input concerns
Several attendees questioned the hiring of an outside firm and called for more public influence on the hiring process. There was no clear reason for the low attendance, but some attendees said publicity was poor. Castner spoke broadly about wanting more student input, but the only student present was covering the meeting for the school newspaper, and some others attending after-school activities said they were unaware of it.
Castner ran the meeting by himself, handwriting summaries of public comments on a piece of paper without assistance or recording devices. Laughter and groans greeted his explanation that the school board had chosen the groups that BWP met with privately for input on the search.
Castner said that all comments will have a place in the firm’s report and emphasized that people can email him detailed statements.
“We’re not here to be Pollyanna-ish about [saying] there aren’t any problems in the system,” he said, adding that the firm will go through the comments to make sure the report is representative of community concerns.
Attendees said there are problems galore. The gist of public comments was that the new superintendent should be someone who can command reforms and who will be committed to the students rather than to personal gain or political careerism.
Administrative turnover is a major issue in a district that has seen five superintendents in less than 10 years, who have left for reasons ranging from a corruption scandal to election as the county CEO. Poor planning that has triggered perpetual school overcrowding and redistricting was another concern described by attendees.
As the board proposes a controversial general obligation bond, financial issues of all kinds were also a repeatedly cited source of worry, with Restore DeKalb members saying the next superintendent should be someone capable of ordering an external audit. Another sore spot, attendees said, are different conditions in north and south DeKalb, including on school safety.
Cross, the Dunwoody parent, says the school board lacks foresight and flexibility in adapting its strategic plan to changing demographics. She cited the ongoing debate over the new Austin Elementary School.
“They built a new school. It cost millions of dollars,” she said. “It’s not going to solve our overcrowding problem at all.”
Restore DeKalb members said they believe nepotism in hiring is a problem. “You got people in this system so long, they think they’re the superintendent,” said Restore DeKalb’s Joel Edwards.
Cross said that the district is working well at the school level, where many principals and teachers are running innovative programs. “You’ve got the passion in a lot of those people… We could be doing so much more if the financials were there,” she said.
Holmes said it’s a different story in her Cedar Grove cluster, where she described frequent school violence and a lack of parental involvement. She said she was charged a $41 background check fee to volunteer in a local school; Cross said she’s never been charged such a fee in Dunwoody schools.