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DeKalb Schools to discuss SACS scrutiny

7:26 PM, Sep 5, 2012   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- The DeKalb County Board of Education will meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss a critical letter from SACS, one that points out a list of "serious issues" in the system and questions the board's general ability to function.

Last Wednesday, Board president Dr. Eugene Walker received a three-page letter from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The letter, also addressed to Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Atkinson, says SACS has received numerous complaints about board actions that may violate accreditation standards.

"The primary concerns shared in the complaints are that the Board of Education has failed to conduct itself in accordance with locally approved policy, state law, and the AdvancED Accreditation Standards," the letter read.

AdvancED is the parent company of SACS. Wednesday's board meeting will be the first time members have met to discuss the letter.

SACS says DeKalb Schools may be lacking in two of five accreditation areas: governance and leadership and resources/support systems.

SACS president and CEO Dr. Mark Elgart says the latter refers to the board's mismanagement of funds. He said one glaring mistake came in attorney fees: the district allocated $1 million annually for legal fees, but actually spent between $10-15 million each year. Meanwhile, they continually underbudgeted for electricity, he said.

"[The school district] knowingly adopted budgets they knew they couldn't meet," Elgart said, citing a five-year pattern.

The letter also criticizes individual board members who "repeatedly and knowingly violate locally adopted Board policy," though no members are named. Elgart said the letter was prompted by more than 50 complaints from parents, county officials and district staff.

"It is very serious," Elgart told 11Alive Tuesday. "We work with over 30,000 schools across the country, and we might send a letter like this to a fraction of one percent of those schools."

"There needs to be significant improvement in a very short period of time in order to stabilize the system, and we question whether or not the system can do that today," he continued.

Elgart said it is too early to tell if the board's accreditation may be in jeopardy.

Walker said he was "surprised and disappointed" when he received the letter last Wednesday.

"I felt we were working well with SACS," he said. "Even though we lost significant amounts of tax money, we still tried to balance the books."

"I feel we have been a functional board," Walker continued. "All of our meetings are out in the open. We've hidden nothing."

Walker said he'd like more details about the alleged problems and thinks the board needs more time to respond to the letter.

By contrast, fellow board member Paul Womack, Jr. felt something like this would happen soon.

"I was not the least bit surprised," Womack told 11Alive.

In June, Womack publicly called for a criminal investigation into the system's finances.

"No one wanted to listen," he said.

The board will meet Wednesday at 2 p.m. at DeKalb School Headquarters. The meeting is open to the public.

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