Thurmond says parents are supportive, want district to make turnaround

Mar 4, 2013 by

Michael Thurmond ended his third week as DeKalb County school superintendent watching six of the nine people who hired him fighting to keep their school board jobs. Thurmond sat down with staff writer Nancy Badertscher to discuss the challenges facing the district, including the possible loss of school accreditation. He talks of reaching out to the head of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the agency that accredits the district, and of asking Gwinnett School Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks to be his mentor. With all he’s facing, Thurmond says he’s not overwhelmed, but “excited and blessed, really, to be given this opportunity. It is the challenge of a lifetime.”

Q: Do you agree with Gov. Deal’s decision to remove the six board members?

A: “I respect the decision. I don’t necessarily agree with it. I think the vote at the ballot box is sacred, and I think only in the most extreme situations can we dilute or abridge that right. He [Deal] had a tough choice to make and even he expressed reservations about it. But what he said was: ‘I didn’t have any other choice.’ ”

Q: On the topic of accreditation, have you talked one-on-one with Mark Elgart? What was the upshot of the discussion?

A: “I met with him the second week. I expressed to him that I will in this administration do whatever it takes to address the issues that SACS has raised and that I need his support to regain full accreditation.”

Q: Did he give you odds?

A: “I asked him if he is confident I can get the job done. He told me, ‘No.’ He followed up with: ‘Confidence is based on experience, and I don’t have any experience with you.’ But he said, ‘I do have faith you can get the job done.’ I told him ‘I couldn’t ask for any more than that.’ The truth is I couldn’t ask for any more. It was fair and honest.”

Q: Do you know why no action was taken on the SACS to-do list from December until when you were hired?

A: “I hesitate because I don’t want to violate any legal confidences. Yes, I know why. I know what I’ve been told. Senior staff was directed not to contact SACS.”

Q: By whom? The former superintendent?

A: (Silent for a moment.) “Senior staff was told not to respond to SACS. I think that’s one of the more compelling unanswered questions from the state hearing. It was brought up over and over again by state board members: Why did DeKalb School District not move forthrightly to respond to the [SACS] letter on Dec. 18? Dr. Elgart said he heard nothing until we [Thurmond] reached out to him.”

Q: Did you press these senior staff members to explain why?

A: “These are loyal employees who respect the chain of command.”

Q: In your mind, did that make the situation worse?

A: “Absolutely. It is an embarrassment. I think it had a tremendous impact on how the state board looked at the school district. How could you go two months on the most critical issue, which is accreditation and it’s at risk. That’s unconscionable. I was relieved to find out it was not for indifference.”

Q: I understand you’ve spent a good deal of time meeting with parents. What’s the upshot of what you’ve gleaned from them?

A: “Many parents are frustrated and angry, which is very understandable. What’s been impressive is so many parents and stakeholders have said, ‘We support you and want you to succeed.’ That is so gratifying to me. I’m not going to let them down. God be my witness. We have to succeed because for the children — their educational careers hang in the balance.

Q: Has anyone made an issue of the fact that you are not an educator? And if so, how do you respond?

A: “Oh yeah, people have raised that. I accept that. It’s a fact. Some would prefer I had a Ph.D. or MA in education But last night, I thought about it. We have hundreds of Ph.Ds, master’s degrees. What we need is people with some CS degrees— common sense. Common sense would have allowed them to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. Hopefully, I bring some common sense. I believe in three principals of leadership .. It’s the LLL, listening, learning and leading. I’m in the listening stage right now.

Q: How about teachers?

A: “I look forward to spending time with teachers, but not just them — everyone, the bus drivers, cafeteria workers, everyone. I tell people I parachuted into the middle of a firefight with bullets, missiles, projectiles coming in all directions. But things have settled a little bit.”

Q: Have you set any immediate priorities?

A: “Restoring accreditation is my No. 1, 2 and 3 priorities. That’s the ballgame.”

Q: What have you been doing behind the scenes that the public doesn’t know about?

A: “I’ve talked to Alvin Wilbanks in Gwinnett and asked him to be my mentor. I have great respect for him. I’ve reached out to educators, retired and active, and asked them to assist me in these efforts. I’ve talked to students.”

Q: Have you or do you plan to request a forensic audit?

A: “On March 15, I have to present my 90 day-plan to the board. I would be surprised if that would not be one of my recommendations.”

Q: Lastly, any regrets about taking on this challenge?

A: (Thurmond laughs.) “I called the state retirement system today. My first retirement check from the state (for his work at the Labor Department, Department of Family and Children Services and the University of Georgia) was scheduled to arrive March 1. I said: ‘Cancel that check.’ We’ll retire another day.”

Thurmond says parents are supportive, want district to make… |

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