At a public forum on March 31, the DeKalb County School System’s three superintendent candidates faced tough questions regarding the many problems that have been plaguing the system over the past several years.
Each candidate was given time to make a brief introduction, then answer questions submitted by community members as to why they were the best choice to represent the third-largest school system in Georgia.
All three candidates come from districts with fewer than 10,000 students, compared to 99,000 in the DeKalb system.
Lillie Cox, superintendent of Hickory Public Schools in North Carolina and Arthur Culver, superintendent of Champaign Public Schools in Illinois, both said that their previous experience working with larger districts made them comfortable with DeKalb’s size.
Cox worked as the executive director of organizational development, professional development and curriculum in the Guilford School System before moving to Hickory.
She said she had a clear understanding of what needed to be in place in a district as large as DeKalb and stressed the importance of communication and accountability.
“I do come from a smaller system but fortunately I’ve had the opportunity to work at the senior staff level of a very large system of 73,000—not quite as big as yours. However, I do understand the dynamics that happen at that level,” Cox said.
Culver cited his experience teaching in the Houston Independent School District with more than 200,000 pupils and his work as an area superintendent in Fort Bend as an asset.
“That’s really not a problem for me because, again, I’ve been in a large system,” he said. “Also, [I’ve been] an area superintendent in a district with 56,000 kids; that’s not a small system. I was engaged at the administrative level and I was involved in the community, so I know how that functions.”
Gloria Davis, the only candidate without any experience in a large district, said that similar problems arise in districts both large and small and the changes DeKalb needs have to be made quickly and thoroughly.
“I often say, ‘If you work with me you need two pairs of roller-skates, one on your feet and [another] in the trunk of the car,’ because we are going to make sure that the things that need to be addressed get addressed, and they get addressed quickly,” she said.
All three candidates spoke about the importance of data driven development within the district and said that the focus needs to be switched back to the children. They also noted that financial oversight and proper procedural programs must be put in place and frequently monitored to eliminate waste, fraud and maintain a system of checks and balances.
Davis and Culver stressed the seriousness of having a strong internal auditor but Cox said that she thinks it is important, instead, to have an external audit.
“We have received national and statewide awards for our audits, no exceptions,” said Cox of Hickory Schools. “I think that it’s important to have [an audit] done by an external contracted company or an employee that’s an external auditor [who] reports directly to the board.”
Chris Adams, an area resident who sat taking notes on his laptop, said that although all of the candidates seemed like they were qualified, Lillie Cox was the only one who he felt had demonstrated success at every level.
“Of the three candidates, she most clearly articulated the role of the superintendent and how she would bring about results. She provided the most specifics as to how she would hold schools and teachers accountable…it was clear that she had done her homework on DeKalb County, its opportunities and its challenges,” Adams said.
President of the Organization of DeKalb Educators David Schutten said that he thought Culver was the strongest candidate because he seemed to be the most knowledgeable of the problems the county is facing.
He also mentioned it was positive that Culver spoke about DeKalb’s recent SACS report because that showed the candidate was well versed in what needs to be done moving forward.
“He had done his research about the county and gave in-depth, thoughtful answers. I think he sees that it’s about more than just the test scores,” Schutten said.
“I thought Davis didn’t go in-depth enough and gave too many sound bites; I’m not looking for people who can give good sound bytes, I’m looking for someone who can go to work and make some tough decisions,” he said.
After each candidate finished speaking, those attending the forum were asked to fill out an evaluation form. The forms were then collected for consideration by the school board during its selection process.
Board Chairman Tom Bowen said that the next step is for the board to begin deliberations on each candidate based on formal interview questions and public feedback.
“When we developed a profile we said there are a variety of key characteristics that we we’re looking for. Well, all the candidates are going to have those characteristics in different quantities and the question is, ‘Who has the overall best package?’” Bowen said.
“We’ve got to make the best choice for where we think DeKalb is today and where we’re going and [where] the resources [are] that we most urgently need,” he said.
Here is another important question that was asked at the forum. Note that each answer has been edited for space
There has been a major division between the north side schools and the south side schools, how will you work to blend this division?
We’re still doing north and south huh? I would say what you do is engage everybody; division comes from mistrust and people feeling like they’re not included…So, what my goal and responsibility would be as a district leader is to make sure that regardless of where you live—north or south—you know that your child is being well educated.
You also have to engage individuals from all parts of the community in the decision making process and involve the students as well.
I think you do that by engaging people in conversation. There may be a division but I believe that somewhere you can find some common ground and that’s what I would begin focusing on. Also, you find out what is at the root of that division…sometimes we think things but we don’t have the right information in our hands. So, if they’re divided on a particular issue and there’s some data related to that issue, I’d make sure that that particular piece of information is discussed and shared in a way that people can understand. Also, find the leaders in those communities and make sure you can bring them together and undergo consensus building activities.
I also currently work in a district where there’s a big division between the north and the south; the two sides don’t really understand how the other side lives and I don’t know that they really want to. I think sometimes ideas of bringing people together may not be our role as a school district…I believe in equity for all children and sometimes that doesn’t mean equal…that’s something you have to just say. Some children need different resources than others to meet those standards. Some students have met those standards and we need resources there to move them beyond those standards because we’re not going to put a ceiling on any child. I think talking about it in relation to our standards and our goals is the first step in helping people see what our role is as a school system, which is helping to provide a quality school system for every child.