Thurmond tries to rebuild a troubled school system

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As Michael Thurmond remembers it, he got a phone call one day from an attorney for the DeKalb County school board asking if he would be interested in taking on the job of school superintendent.

The pay was good — $275,000 a year — but the offer did not exactly constitute a dream job.

The DeKalb school system was being threatened with the loss of accreditation because of school board mismanagement. The governor was on the verge of suspending most of the school board members. The system was mired in a financial crisis. Several of the system’s top administrators had been indicted and were facing trial on racketeering charges.

After promising he would get back with the attorney, Thurmond called his wife, Zola, and relayed the information about the job offer to her.

“She said, ‘you’re crazy,’” Thurmond recalled. “And 30 minutes later they (the school board representatives) called back and I said, ‘sure.’”

That was last February when the former legislator, state bureaucrat and labor commissioner took on the task of trying to pull the third-largest school system in Georgia away from the edge of the cliff it was about to go over.

“I’m one of those guys who runs toward a problem instead of away from it,” Thurmond said in explaining why he accepted what seemed like the ultimate in thankless jobs. “The state of Georgia and DeKalb County could not afford to allow this public school system to fail. This is too important to Metro Atlanta and the state of Georgia.”

Today, after nearly 10 months on the job, Thurmond says he can see some progress.

“I inherited a deficit of $14.7 million,” he said. “They had a revenue shortfall of about $70-plus million. Then, of course, SACS (the accreditation agency) said, get rid of the deficit, introduce a balanced budget, and begin to rebuild the rainy day fund balance. As of today, we’ve eliminated the deficit, our budget is currently balanced and we have approximately $10 million in the rainy day fund.”

Other pieces of the puzzle have also fallen into place.

Within weeks after Thurmond became superintendent, Gov. Nathan Deal suspended six of the nine school board members and appointed replacements. The attorneys for ousted board chairman Eugene Walker went before the Georgia Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of Deal’s actions, but the court eventually ruled in the governor’s favor.

The reconstituted school board has voted to settle a tangled lawsuit involving Heery International, which had been the system’s construction manager, and accept a payment of $7.5 million. The settlement also brought to an end the payment of legal fees to a private law firm, which had drained an estimated $18 million from the DeKalb coffers.

The former school administrators who were indicted on theft and racketeering charges have now been convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Even with all the turmoil and the problems to work through, Thurmond insists that the job has been a “great experience” for him.

“It’s been very educational for me, no pun intended,” he said. “The good thing is, I’m surrounded by educators who love to teach, so anything I don’t know, I have very close to me 14,000 people who love to teach. I’m never at a loss for access to things I need to know.”

“The critical issue of the 21st century is, how do we improve performance and outcome among our public schools, particularly for economically disadvantaged students?” Thurmond said. “It’s one thing to theorize and pontificate, but at the end of the day, you have to engage the challenge at a very fundamental level. Bill Clinton said, ‘when you’re in public service, you hope for an opportunity to sometimes make a significant difference.’ This is why you prepare yourself.”

The next big challenge is dealing with the threatened loss of accreditation that still hangs over the system. SACS officials are visiting DeKalb this week and say they will issue their next report sometime in January.

“We’re working mightily to lift the district off probation, because that’s the lifeblood of any educational system,” Thurmond said.

Thurmond has never been a school teacher or administrator, but he learned valuable political skills from such masters as legendary House speaker Tom Murphy (Thurmond served three terms in the Georgia House) and former governor Zell Miller.

In a recent interview, Thurmond recalled how he was caught up in the middle of an intense struggle between Murphy and Miller over a bill to raise the state sales tax.

“That’s how I made my bones, because Murphy was trying to get Zell to back off – he wouldn’t,” Thurmond said.

Miller insisted on exempting fresh foods, but not processed foods, from the increased sales tax. During the debate over the measure, Thurmond went to the well of the House and pulled a lobster and a can of sardines out of a grocery bag.

“Is the poor man going to buy this? Or this?” Thurmond said as he held up the lobster and the can of sardines. “Are we going to be satisfied with exempting the lobster and taxing the poor man on his sardines?”

In the end, Miller agreed to a Thurmond compromise to provide a small tax credit to low-income families to help cushion the impact of the sales tax increase.

“On the day I took this job (with DeKalb County), he sent me a handwritten letter that said, ‘You and that damn lobster,’” Thurmond laughed. “To this day, he still talks about that lobster.”

Even with some of the major questions now resolved, there are other issues ahead for the DeKalb school system and its 100,000 students.

The school board voted 5-4 in November to turn down an application for a privately managed “charter school cluster” that would include Druid Hills High School and its feeder schools. That board decision cannot be appealed to the state, which means it could turn into another long-running legal dispute for the school system.

Thurmond says he will press ahead regardless.

“It’s a work in progress,” he observed. “There are 100,000 students, and this is a complex operation. You always try to do what’s in the best interests of all our students.”

© 2013 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: DeKalb County school system , DeKalb school board , Michael Thurmond , Nathan Deal , Zell Miller