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Trifecta of Deficits – Credibility, Academic and Financial

I’ve received several requests for my recent column in the Reporter.
From: Reporter Newspapers
By: Nancy Jester

Pursuant to a recommendation from the State Board of Education, the Governor suspended the DeKalb Board of Education and appointed new board members. These events were triggered by the district’s accreditation being downgraded to the status of “probation” by AdvancED (the parent company of the regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)) and Senate Bill 84 passed in 2010.

As I told the State Board, I believe DeKalb has three deficits: credibility, academic and financial. Shortly after coming onto the Board in January 2011, I determined budgeting practices were flawed. I publicly discussed my concerns at every stated board meeting during the financial report. I gave spreadsheets to fellow board members and officials showing them the growing financial problem. Until the most recent SACS report, in December 2012, the accreditor (SACS) never mentioned the financial problems. I am the first to discover and state these problems publicly. In my email newsletter of May 20, 2012, Budget And SPLOST Updates, I stated: “For the past year, I have publicly inquired about, and expressed my frustration with, many line items that were significantly over budget. Their consistent variances from the budget suggested that these items were not properly budgeted for years. Still other discretionary items were also over-budget because of a lack of fiscal restraint. These factors, along with a $15 million increase in benefit costs from the state, and falling property tax revenue have resulted in DCSD starting the budgeting process assuming a $73.8 million budget deficit.” I also stated the budget was “a document based on deception”. The SACS Special Review Visit Report contains my research regarding the budget. Anyone can access my blog and see the research I’ve posted. There are a number of other financial concerns I have noted but were not touched upon in the SACS report.

What we have seen with the budget is a symptom of the larger problem: DeKalb has not invested in the classroom. In November 2012, I published a “Salary Analysis From FY2008 – FY2013” that showed every salary category declined except “General Administration”; these salaries increased over 14%. The budgeting practices have led to the academic and credibility deficits. Parents and teachers see increased class size, more furlough days and fewer resources. These developments seem incongruent with having the highest millage rate in the metro area at 23.98 mils. This, along with the opacity of the district and burdensome, often punitive, centralized bureaucratic decision-making, have created the credibility deficit the district faces today.

Our academic deficit is the result of the financial and credibility deficits. The district lost its focus on the classroom. You can see the evidence of this in the drivers of the financial and credibility deficits. Now that AdvancED and the State have recognized what many of us have seen for years, will the system be able to heal itself? Only time will tell. I certainly hope so. I was one vote on a board that did not, as a whole, want to change things. Will the new board, State and AdvancED be able to move the district in the right direction? Replacing the board was one step but it is the administration that has operational control. This insular group has shown little appetite for adjusting their methods. The administration is the driver, while the board is the map. Are the drivers going to stay on the road map? What type of vehicle will they put the district in? Will it be the same vehicle for every school regardless of their needs or accomplishments? Will the administration continue to get the largest luxury vehicle?

I will be writing a series on changes that Georgia must embrace if we are to make it out of the bottom third nationally on achievement measures. Stay tuned for those. It was an honor to serve you on the board. I am happy knowing that my research illuminated the financial problems in our system. I look forward to continuing to serve you in different ways. As always, I remain an advocate for kids and taxpayers.

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