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Thurmond: Voters Partially Responsible for School Board Strife

"I'm here to correct some of the mistakes they made but also to correct some of the mistakes you made," the interim superintendent said at Oak Grove Elementary School on Wednesday.

DeKalb County voters are partially responsible for the strife and discord that has pushed the board of education to the brink of its own removal, interim schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond said Wednesday.

Because voters elected the board members, they must take some responsibility for the state of the board and the school system as it struggles to regain approval from its accreditors, he said, speaking before the  Emory Lavista Parent Council at Oak Grove Elementary School. It was his first public appearance since the embattled school board hired him last week to replace Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson.

"My job is to correct mistakes. I did not make them," he said shortly before the meeting came to a close. "I'm here to correct many of the mistakes [the school board] made but to also correct some of the mistakes you made."

Some shocked parents in the packed cafeteria looked at each other. Others remained silent. Thurmond pleaded with parents to support him in his primary goal: to return the DeKalb County School System to unqualified accreditation.

"If you judge me on that and nothing else – if we win that and nothing else – it will be a major victory for the DeKalb County School System," he said.

The school system has been placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – which oversees accreditation – due to alleged mismanagement. The school board's chairman, Eugene Walker, announced his resignation Monday, and the board as a whole faces a hearing before the state board of education Thursday that could result in its removal.

Amid the chaos, Thurmond said he wanted one thing from parents.

"I've had eight days. I will not undo 10 years of work in eight days," he said. "At a minimum, all I need is an opportunity to try. And as far as superintendents in DeKalb right now, I'm your only option."

The audience chuckled. But Thurmond also said he related to parents' frustration.

"I would question your sanity if you were not angry," he said. "You have every right. ... I need your help, I need your counsel, and, quite frankly, I need your criticism." 

Two parents demanded the school system conduct a forensic financial audit to account for alleged missing money. Thurmond declined to commit to one when pressed but said, "I'm almost certain that I will request a forensic audit."

Many parents seemed to support the idea of removing the school board. When Thurmond raised the issue, much of the audience applauded. One parent demanded board members instead step down before such a move could be made.

"The board has purposefully been quiet about things that have been done," he said.

The school system also needs to cut its dependence on attorneys and stop hemorrhaging cash in the form of legal fees, several parents said. Thurmond said he agreed. 

"We've got enough laywers doing enough legal work. ... We're spending too much money on lawyers," he said. "I'm committed to doing everything necessary. You have to give me a chance." 

"No, we don't!" one woman said.

"Yes, you do," Thurmond responded.

He said one of his jobs will be to determine what's causing issues raised in SACS' probationary report.

"The one weakness in the findings is that they are symptoms and not problems," he said. "We have a fever but what I have to do is figure out what is causing temperatures to rise."

After the meeting, District 2 board member Marshall Orson said he agreed with Thurmond.

"He understands that it's very challenging," he said. "We've got to give him the opportunity to fix these [issues]."

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