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Strategic Planning

A discredited zeitgeist of the past or a vital document needed for success?

At the DeKalb Board of Education’s last meeting (6/3/13) members discussed the status of their strategic planning process (Item E.1(a)).  AdvancEd/SACS’ required action eleven directs the district to “re-implement its strategic planning team for the purpose of effectively implementing the DeKalb County School District’s Strategic Plan to guide the direction of the district.”

It appears that action eleven assumes the existence of a strategic plan and requires the district to implement it.  It is confusing that the DeKalb Board seems poised to initiate another process to develop a new strategic plan.  Your tax dollars paid for outside consultants, recognized across the states and by SACS, to assist DeKalb in developing the existing plan.  Click here to read about some of the process.  If they are going to go down the road to produce another plan, I hope they’ll look over the copious data and input that has already been collected.  It’s just as relevant and timely as ever and, best of all, it won’t cost the taxpayer another penny. I do worry that once the district selects a permanent superintendent, we’ll find ourselves, once again, developing another strategic plan for/by a new chief and their new team of administrators.  It seems one of the hallmarks of being the head of a school district is the development and imprint of one’s “vision”, separate and apart, from previous administrations.  Speaking of a permanent superintendent, has the board begun a search?

While our board and administrators scurry about, planning and discussing the finer points of strategic planning, I will interject this fact:

Strategic planning is a waste of time and money.  It was an idea that didn’t work well in business and continues to be unhelpful in public education.  It did not produce returns for businesses in the private sector and it has not improved educational outcomes in public schools.

I am a pragmatist.  Call me old-fashioned but I want results, not more talk or “process”.  If we are wasting our time and dollars on a product or project that does not improve the educational lives of our children, I say cut your losses and move beyond this tired and fruitless idea.  You may be wondering why I would say such a thing about “strategic planning”.  Isn’t it a necessary?  Don’t we need this to become better and guide our district?  Simply put, no.  In fact, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and Strategic Planning in Education was published in the Harvard Education Review about this very subject.   The article reviews one of the important works on the topic of strategic planning and states, “While Mintzberg’s book focuses primarily on strategic planning in business organizations, it represents an important resource for educators who encounter the education version of strategic planning and assume that this management innovation rests on a solid foundation in the private sector. If strategic planning’s effectiveness in business turns out to be a myth, educators might well wonder about its prospects as a management tool for school improvement.”  The article goes on to share that, “In their 1989 study, Vicki Basham and Fred Lunenburg found an ‘inconsistent and weak’ association between district participation in strategic planning and student achievement, as measured by standardized test scores in reading, language arts, and mathematics in grades 3, 5, 7, and 10. Basham and Lunenburg wrote in their review of prior research that ‘no other study shows a direct tie-in between strategic planning in school districts and school district performance on standardized achievement tests,’ and they can add their own work to the list.” So, as I stated earlier, I want results and strategic planning does not drive results.

In his critique of strategic planning, Mintzberg tells us that, “Because analysis is not synthesis, strategic planning is not strategy formulation.”  He adds that, “Ultimately, the term `strategic planning’ has proved to be an oxymoron.”  It is not that Dr. Mintzberg believes that strategy is some sort of myth.  He simply believes that it wasn’t something that was generated out of the formulaic “process”. (Warning  – anytime the word “process” is used an alarm should sound.  It is overused by today’s bureaucratic class and generally signals more of your tax dollars will be spent with little to no results.)  I appreciate the way an article in Forbes Magazine described how Mintzberg sees strategy – “…..strategy emerges over time as intentions collide with and accommodate a changing reality.”  Indeed.

In my quest to provide value to taxpayers, I’ll end with this.  If DCSS pushes forward with the old plan or develops an entirely new one, I have a money-saving tip for them.  The Harvard Education Review found a “remarkable sameness pervading….plans.”  So do us all a favor and use the banal “composite mission statement” that David Conley of the University of Oregon came up with:

It is the mission of ________ School District to enable all students to become responsible citizens and lifelong learners in a changing global society. This will occur in an environment where diversity is valued and the potential of each student is developed to the fullest, with an emphasis on excellence in all endeavors. This can only occur as a result of a partnership between and among the school district, parents, and other community members and agencies.

Unfortunately, I predict we’ll spend more money on consultants, have more “stakeholder engagement sessions”, learn the latest edu-babble vocabulary and nothing will change.  The consultants and bureaucrats will have once again syphoned money away from children and classrooms perpetuating the hamster wheel of the modern public school district.  Mission Accomplished.

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We’re all familiar with the old adage about doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.  So why are we hiring District School Superintendents the same way and “governing” large school districts the same way?

Yes, we’ve seen Superintendents being hired from outside of the educational establishment, but it has become commonplace and is no longer an innovation. Most significantly, Superintendents with non-traditional backgrounds perform similarly to Superintendents that come from within the educational establishment.

Could it be that the structure of what is managed and governed by Superintendents and Boards is the heart of the problem?

Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans, recently published a letter on this very issue in EdWeek. Mr. Kingsland argues that we need superintendents who are the “Great Relinquishers.” Under “No Child Left Behind” and other accountability measures, the knee-jerk reaction of administrators has been to strengthen their grip on districts and schools.  It’s an understandable response to the demands of accountability, but it’s the opposite of what will produce results for children and taxpayers.  Tight administrative grip stifles and chokes out real progress and innovation.  When central authority imposes what it determines to be a successful strategy on all schools, uniformity and regimented reporting become the management tools.

While this approach seems rational from the outside, it lacks the agility to address the unique issues that occur within each school and classroom.  It entangles the school level and classroom level professionals and is an obstacle to doing what works best for their communities.

Modern district administration has clung to almost every management fad business schools have spewed over the last decade.  The truth is these management techniques, so carefully codified in management literature, are often themselves unreproducible and yield poor results for businesses who implement them. Click here for a brief review of failed business fads, some of which we still see being tried in school districts today.  If these management fads weren’t successful at producing results for businesses why do Superintendents and their training courses rely so heavily on them?

What we do know from the time of Adam Smith until today, is that the invisible hand works.  No Superintendent or central office bureaucrat can engineer an outcome as optimal as allowing the producers and consumers in the marketplace of education to simply operate as they see fit.  If command and control systems worked to produce the best possible outcomes for society, we would all be speaking Russian today!  Sadly, the educational establishment is trying to make us all speak edu-babble and the business jargon du jour.  When will they learn?

Mr. Kingsland is spot on.  We need The Great Relinquishers.  We need more independent charter schools.  The last 100 years has been the era of The Great Consolidators.  We have gone from more than 100,000 school districts nationwide to less than 15,000 today.  An ever growing percentage of school funding is paid to administrators.  The reformation of education in our state and nation will occur when we move in the opposite direction.

We must free schools and communities from the iron grip of bureaucracies.  No matter how well intentioned, a centrally directed policy, method or program, will fail to maximize educational outcomes for our children.  We need to look for Relinquishers to lead school districts now.  They need to be aggressive in seeking to divest districts of their centrally coordinated practices.  I look forward to the day when philanthropic money rewards the Relinquisher and foundations incentivize leaders to see themselves as the purveyors of educational freedom.

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DCSS Budget

The DeKalb budget has been in the news lately.

The Superintendent is projecting more revenue will be available for the FY14 budget.  Specifically, the Superintendent is projecting DCSS will end FY13 with revenues exceeding expenses.  The primary source is accumulated money in the after school program accounts for various schools.

The after school programs accumulate money for the individual schools they serve.  These funds are to be used at the discretion of the school leadership for purchasing resources for their school; much like fundraising money.  It appears the accumulated money in these accounts is being appropriated to make the overall budget scenario rosier than it otherwise would be.  The majority of the other funds cited as recently found, are “potential” or “estimated”.  I most definitely oppose the use of after school program funds to be pooled into the general fund for budgeting purposes.   It is a complete breach of trust.  As for the other “potential” and “estimated” revenues, I have two thoughts: (1) DeKalb citizens should be vigilant so DCSS does not return to its previously, overly optimistic and spendthrift ways and (2) Will DCSS fire the individuals responsible for grant administration that, allegedly, failed to collect on grant administration money due the district?  The failure to collect this revenue for years cannot be placed on a CFO that served approximately one year and came to the district in the middle of developing the last budget.  Furthermore, this past fiscal year is one of the few we can point to that showed fiscal restraint and will end without seeing expenses exceed revenue.  Had DeKalb been as prudent with past budgets, we would not have found ourselves in deficit.  I have not seen the financial statement for FY12 (the state is currently auditing that year) but DCSS may have exceeded its budgeted expenditures by over $30 million.  One simply cannot run a school district like that.

While I am pleased to hear the Superintendent say he will be cutting central office staffing, I will reserve judgment until I see and can verify the cuts.  One item we have not seen on the chopping block is transportation to magnet programs over and above what is legally required by the district.  Last year, had we cut this, we could have saved almost $3 million dollars.  That money could buy back one furlough day or hire almost 50 teachers.  Has the Board asked the Superintendent to look into these types of trade-offs within the budget?

The next budget hearing has been postponed until June 3rd.  I hope the administration is working on these issues.  Stay vigilant because, with citizens’ attention focused elsewhere, the Spring and Summer months often bring questionable votes with negative consequences.  Remember cell towers?

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Teaching the Constitution and Bill of Rights

It is ironic that our nation, founded on a Constitution and given life by the Sons of Liberty – organizers of the tax protest known as the Boston Tea Party – finds the modern tax collector targeting groups that seek to educate people about the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is outrageous that the IRS would target groups based on ideology but this goes so much further. It is deeply unsettling that anyone is targeted for educating Americans about their founding document and their rights.

Should not this be an important subject throughout K-12 public education? My experience as a parent of three elementary school children has proved to me their formal learning about history is deficient when it comes to understanding the Constitution and Bill of Rights. This is not a deficiency in the teachers. Some teachers bolster their lessons on this topic but our state leaders in education have let us down by not fully investing in teaching our children about their own history and rights. It should be noted that this deficiency exists with Georgia’s current standards for learning and the Common Core does not appear to fix this. My own opinion is that our elementary schools should have far more focus on the philosophical origins of our nation and the documents that bind us to them. By the end of 5th grade, our children should be able to enumerate their rights, with full understanding as to their meaning. If our children are not fully educated about the origins of our Republic, we should all worry about the continuity of their rights and freedom in the future. I want our children to inherit a world where they are secure in their rights and freedom. This latest scandal gives me pause to wonder if those in government bureaucracies are now either uneducated about our history or truly believe that our rights and freedoms are an existential threat to them, or some of both. Whatever the case may be, it is Leviathan Government, which is antithetical to government of the people, by the people, for the people.


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05/06/2013 – Realtime Blog – May DeKalb Board Meeting

DeKalb County School District
Board Meeting
2pm – Work Session (Agenda)
5:45pm – Public Comments
7pm – Business Meeting (Agenda)

There are a number of important agenda items today. As always, I encourage everyone to closely examine the financial report. There is a sharp increase in legal fees for March. In the last fiscal year (FY12) YTD legal fees were $3.78 million and this fiscal year (FY13) the YTD fees are $6.3 million. I routinely voted against incurring additional legal fees and rejected accepting financial and HR reports with discrepancies. Unfortunately I was not joined in my dissent by most members of the board.

The board is going to approve several policies tonight, including one addressing nepotism. From what I read, I don’t think the new language offers a substantive change. What remains my main concern is the enforcement of the policy. The administration must vigorously enforce the policy.

At the 7pm Business Meeting the CFO will give a FY14 budget update.
In the most recent reports available on the GA DOE websites (FY11), if DeKalb reduced its per pupil general administration costs ($206) to the levels of Cobb County ($83), it could save the district approximately $12 million. I thought it was interesting that Gwinnett’s last report showed that they spent $240 per pupil on general administration. I’m disappointed that these numbers aren’t the most current but they can give insight into budget decisions.

I have long been an advocate for restructuring compensation. Outside of the Superintendent, no central office employee should make more money than the average principal. Highly effective teachers should receive compensation that incentivizes them to remain in the classroom.

Book Recommendations:
I recently read How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. I recommend it and think it helps direct the conversation about education in a results-oriented direction while avoiding the clichés of much of the “reform” discussion. Another book that also focuses on results and compliments the discussion is Toxic Charity. The author writes about experiences with his urban ministry in Atlanta. I’ll do a blog post in the future discussing these books. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on them as well.

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Dual Accreditation with the Georgia Accrediting Commission (GAC)

If ever there is an issue illuminating the need for more independent charter schools and the right of citizens to self-determination in forming their own city school districts – this is it!

Urgent Action Request

Pursuant to state law (O.C.G.A. § 20-3-519) accreditation by SACS (AdvancEd) or The Georgia Accrediting Commission (GAC) satisfies the HOPE scholarship eligibility requirements.  Many high school communities are asking the Superintendent for permission allowing their school to pursue GAC accreditation with the provision that the school community will pay for it.  So, the budget impact to DeKalb is zero dollars.

Unfortunately, to date after several requests and meetings, the Superintendent has not agreed to allow high schools and their communities to move forward on this matter.  Sadly, the Board of Education has remained silent as well.  Surely our school system and board members can permit the pursuit of GAC accreditation by any school that wants to seek it and is willing to pay the cost.

Dual accreditation is not uncommon.  Columbia County has district accreditation from AdvancEd/SAC and each of their schools is also accredited through the GAC.  Henry County High School is accredited by both Advanc-ED/SACS and GAC.  Ditto for Lanier County High School, North Clayton High School and more.

If you agree with me that the Superintendent and School Board should allow schools to pursue GAC accreditation, please write an email telling them you support this.  We don’t have much time to make this a reality so please send your email as soon as possible.  I’ve listed the board’s emails below.  Feel free to copy me.  Drop me a comment to show your support as well.

CLICK HERE to Email the entire DCSS Board of Education as well as the superintendent.

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SACS Update from Elgart

Called Meeting (Committee of the Whole) 4/3/2013 @ 6:00 PM
Discussion Item: SACS Status
Presented by: Dr. Mark Elgart, CEO\President, AdvancED

Should the board have a script for phone calls and emails?

 ( 0% )


 ( 100% )

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Board Norms

The Work Session at 3pm contains the item E.1.a. – “Board Norms”. This item has no detailed documentation associated with it. Previously, the board was provided with a list of “board norms” that included the following ten items to which they are to commit themselves:

1. Adopting policies, providing stakeholder education, advocating the work of the strategic plan, and developing and allocating resources to support implementation of the strategic plan.
2. Setting the superintendent’s annual performance goals in alignment with the strategic plan.
3. Acting to support the superintendent to maintain district focus on work and priorities in the approved strategic plan and to avoid distractions by using the strategic planning cycle to collect stakeholder input.
4. Directing all stakeholders’ questions, input and discussion directly to the superintendent, providing the superintendent and fellow board members with proactive notice of issues or concerns.
5. Using board meetings to discuss board issues, current or upcoming, with the community, not email, social media, other channels.
6. Requesting information from the superintendent or actions by the superintendent by a request to the whole board, rather than individually from the superintendent or from staff or school personnel.
7. Interacting as a parent of a CSD student in ways that reflect the separation of parent and board member roles, informing the superintendent before contact with school personnel regarding parental concerns.
8. When expressing ideas, opinions and intentions to stakeholders, prefacing or clarifying the statements as personal expression, not representation of the board’s ideas, opinions or intentions.
9. Model excellence and innovation in education governance for stakeholders and peer boards.
10. In interactions in which stakeholders request or expect district actions and decisions, in addition to or unaligned with the strategic plan, educate stakeholders in the strategic planning process, as the process for providing input to the work of the district and its priorities.

I have several concerns about these “board norms”. In particular, I am concerned #5 will prohibit board members from communicating with citizens. Would this “norm” be acceptable for your state representative or senator? The majority of your tax dollars (property taxes plus more than 50% of state revenues) are spent on education. These “norms” seem to keep citizens separated from the governmental entity that decides how these monies are spent in DeKalb. That structure seems to benefit the administrative class to the detriment of transparency and accountability. Item #8 seems to contradict #5. If a board member expresses their opinion or intention, would that not be a violation of #5? It’s all food for though. I look forward to hearing the board’s discussion on these issues.

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Board Meeting – 4/1/2013 – Real-time Blog and Interview

Real-time blog and polls below

DeKalb County School District Board Meetings
2:00pm Work Session
3:00pm Committee of the Whole – Discuss “Board Norms” (below)
5:45pm Community Meeting for Public Comments
7:00pm Business Meeting

1. Establishment of Dates & Times of DeKalb Board of Education Meetings for 2013
Passes 9-0

Should Work Session and Business meeting be on the same day?

 ( 14% )


 ( 57% )


 ( 29% )


2. Affirmation of Board Policy, Descriptor Codes BH and BHA
3. Approval of First Amendment to the Employment Contract Between Michael L. Thurmond and the DeKalb County Board of Education
4. Receipt of Findings and Consideration of the Recommendation of the Tribunal in Personnel Case #13-01
a. Amendment to the Bylaws & Policies: Board Policy GAG, Staff Conflict of Interest
Passed 9-0

Will it do any good to edit Board Policy GAG to say that hires must be based on merit and not Friends and Family.

 ( 38% )


 ( 63% )


 ( 0% )


1. Approval of Minutes
2. Approval of Monthly Financial Report
3. Approval of Human Resources Monthly Report
4. Approval of 2013-2014 School Calendar
5. Ground Lease Agreement with DBOE and GLOBE Academy
6. District-Wide Telecommunications Services (Year 2 of 5)
7. Cellular Carrier Annual Contract
8. Annual Fiber Maintenance Renewal
9. Redan High School Interior Renovations and Storage Facility Contract Award Approval
10. Southwest DeKalb High School Renovations & Capital Renewal A/E Design Firm Approval
11. DeKalb Parks and Recreation 2013 Summer Feeding Program Agreement

Do you think that the DeKalb BOE will approve a charter cluster for Druid Hills, Lakeside or Dunwoody?

 ( 13% )


 ( 50% )


 ( 38% )



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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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