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The Pathology of DeKalb County Schools

Among teachers and administrators who speak off the record, among parents who contribute to blogs on condition of anonymity, within the closed circle of board members, the DeKalb County school year comes to a grim close.

The Pathology of DeKalb County Schools

What a strange situation: We know so much and we know so little. How is it possible that intelligent, deeply concerned DeKalb County residents are reduced to such dubious speculation about the future of their public schools?

Running the schools with superb opacity, our elected officials and administrators share essential information only under duress. Documents appear and disappear at will, and the system’s financial accounting is routinely withheld or obscured.

At least in the fairytale Hansel and Gretel, the crumbs dropped by the children led somewhere. In the dark labyrinth of the DeKalb County School System, there are no trails at all. It’s impossible to follow the money or the ideas.

From the outside looking in, we cannot discern a plan. Hiring a new superintendent? Meeting the eight recommendations from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools? How about formulating an education agenda that constitutes more than a single “2020 Vision” web page, with its incongruous image of an idyllic lake surrounded by trees?

Historically, America’s public schools have mirrored social conflict and the tug between cultural tradition and change. Schools embody the endless argument between the status quo and reform. It is, perhaps, most often in the public schools that we encounter the triumph or deprivation of opportunity, equity and equality.

Within the school community, individuals bump up against the conventions of the system. How teachers teach and how students behave, the degree of administrators’ responsiveness to parents’ concerns, the frustration that one is not being heard, the disappointment in official determinations that seem unfair or wrongheaded – all generate tension.

In my own experience bringing up children in three different states, I’ve participated in debates over the teaching of evolution, the granting of tenure to a principal with anger-management issues, the expansion of a school building based on incomplete demographic data and the use of school buses to transport students to religious instruction. And I grew up in a city wracked by the board of education’s refusal to comply with a court order to desegregate its public schools.

No doubt about it, schools generate heat. School governance has always involved confrontation. And that’s all right in my view.

We don’t have to relish it, of course. But hashing out the curriculum, redistricting, construction, adoption of standards, recruitment and dozens of other issues is part of the business of education.  

If the law is broken, a serious challenge is justified. If decisions appear to be driven by personal or professional interests–if there is even the appearance of impropriety–a challenge is in order.

This brings us back around to the DeKalb County School System, which is virtually pathological. The most notable symptom of decay is the increasingly undemocratic operation of the schools. 

The system is so tightly controlled that residents have little opportunity to express themselves directly to school trustees in a public forum and must resort to writing email messages that are acknowledged, if at all, with an automatic response.

Similarly, the public has been denied access to crucial details of the budget and the courtesy of updates on the superintendent search process. Communications from the board and superintendent often are jumbled and self-serving.

Paranoia is so entrenched it took a month to get clearance to write a few stories that actually highlighted the good work of the schools.

A school system that functions democratically is characterized by open discourse between school board members and the people they represent. Argument is a healthy part of that dialogue. Impulsive pronouncements by individual trustees (candor is not always refreshing or constructive) and heavy-handed public relations management of meetings and information signify that the system is in poor health.

In DeKalb County, the business of education has come down to the contemptuous use of power to create personal prerogatives that have absolutely nothing to do with improving the education of 100,000-plus students.  

We may not have all the information we deserve, but we know enough to recognize the impairment of the school system through undemocratic practices.

This is the last of Claudia Keenan's Classroom Notes columns for this school year.

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