When former Superintendent Crawford Lewis resigned in April, school board Vice Chair Zepora Roberts said the board needed to move as fast as possible to select the next chief or the selection process was bound to get political.
As it turns out, she wasn’t exactly wrong.
Two groups have formed to influence the school board as it grapples with a series of scandals just a few months before November’s general election could change who decides school system policy in DeKalb County.
Lewis resigned a month before he and former Chief Operating Officer Pat Reid and two others were indicted on racketeering charges. Several administrators have also been demoted or fired after it was discovered they sold nearly $100,000 worth of books they authored to district schools. School board member Jay Cunningham recently faced questions regarding his restaurant’s pizza sales to the school system, and Roberts threatened to assault a local TV reporter after she was questioned about the school system’s employment of two of her daughters.
“There’s been a raised level of anxiety...in general,” board Chair Thomas Bowen said. “But what we’ve found is that most of that is due to lack of information as to all the details of what’s going on.”
Some residents, for example, believe the racketeering scheme involving Lewis and Reid included more people than it did, he said, and they see the scandal more as a symptom of widespread corruption rather than an isolated incident.
“A lot of times it’s not us responding to fact. It’s us responding to misinformation,” Bowen said.
The first group, eduKALB, a nonprofit, was announced in May. The group was created by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce to address concerns that the school system’s questionable reputation was harming the county’s business interests, including its ability to lure quality businesses to the county.
eduKALB is reviewing school board candidates and, when the group was announced, had plans to endorse a slate. Board districts one, three, five, seven and nine are up for election. Some board members said they didn’t believe eduKALB was interested in manipulating the school board and were unaware of planned endorsements. eduKALB board member Dave Schutten, who is also head of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, an affiliate of the Georgia Association of Education, said eduKALB volunteers have discussed endorsements.
Board members also need more training on school construction funding, Scutten said illegal construction change orders were among the tools used by Lewis and Reid to direct contracts to Reid’s ex-husband, architect Tony Pope, according to the district attorney’s indictment.
“The school board members don’t appear to want to take any responsibility for the problems on the construction program, and they’re the ones who approved the change orders,” Schutten said. “I know they say they trusted the superintendent, but some of the things are disconcerting.”
Schutten also said the Organization of DeKalb Educators is considering endorsements for school board candidates.
“I think there’s more interest in the school board races (this year),” he said.
Board member Gene Walker said he’s supportive of eduKALB because he said he believes the group is only broadly focused on the improvement of education in the county. He said he was less supportive of a recently formed committee of local lawmakers that hopes to assist the school district through its scandals and the selection of its next superintendent.
“How can they help us do educational policy?” Walker said. “It creates conflict and confusion when we get our roles mixed up. If you’re going to be a state legislator then make state laws.”
The committee, according to local legislator statements, may aim to do that. Some board members and local legislators have advocated shrinking the board from nine to seven members. Board members represent seven geographic districts and two superdistricts, meaning each resident is represented by two board members. The General Assembly would have to approve such a reduction (along with, most likely, the U.S. Department of Justice), and the assembly would informally require the support of the county’s local delegation.
The school board briefly discussed the issue in March, leading to heated discussions about race and politics on the board. Several Black board members claimed the issue was driven by White board members and local officials seeking to limit their influence on the school district. Public discussion never went beyond that one meeting, however, and the issue evaporated.
Board member H. Paul Womack said he supported the board reduction proposal.
“I think that the delegation has seen some of the problems on the school board,” he said. “The communities that elect school board members, they have got to get involved and get past, ‘Well, I know this person,’ and they have got to get involved in the quality of representation that they’re getting.”
Womack declined to single out board members but did refer to a recent public outburst from board member Sarah Copelin-Wood. At a recent board meeting, Copelin-Wood spent more than 15 minutes chastising the system’s planning and forecasting director, Dan Drake, after he presented his revised proposal to close under-enrolled schools and redraw attendance zones across the district.
Copelin-Wood said she believed Drake was focused on schools in her south county district and called out Drake publicly. At the beginning of each meeting, Bowen tells the public they’re not allowed to criticize school system employees beyond the superintendent and board members. Several board members asked Bowen to silence Copelin-Wood, and interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson said Copelin-Wood’s criticisms should have been directed at her. Womack made a motion to adjourn the meeting, and several frustrated board members quickly left the board room.
Copelin-Wood could not be reached for comment. Walker said the board can manage its own issues.
“I think the board ought to police itself. I think there’s a protocol in place for us to do that. It may not be public, but we don’t have our head in the sand,” he said. “We communicate to each other when one’s behavior is not the way we think it ought to be. But we don’t play it out in the press.”
Bowen said he supported the reduction of two district seats even though he represents District 6, one of the seats created after the 2000 Census to ensure Black residents were given sufficient representation.
“I would just point out that the county had operated with seven seats for many, many years,” he said.
Regardless of whether outside groups end up influencing change on the board, the board must focus on changing the district’s culture and creating a more positive image of the district.
“It’s going to take some time for us to change people’s minds about the school district,” Bowen said.