Thurmond, who was hired by the board on Feb. 8 with a 7-2 vote, gets a base salary of $275,000. He was sworn into office the next day and says he will be the school district’s spokesman at the Feb. 21 suspension hearing before the Georgia Board of Education.
After that hearing, the state board could recommend to Gov. Nathan Deal that he remove the DeKalb School Board members.
Thurmond told members of the joint delegation that he needs their help.
“The DeKalb School District needs your help, your insight, your direction,” he said. “And I’m focused on listening to all sides.”
Before taking the high-profile assignment on a one-year contract, Thurmond, a lawyer, author and professor, was Georgia’s labor commissioner for 12 years. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson in 2010. He returned to private legal practice.
Before that, he served five years as a state representative from 1987 to 1992 and head of DFACS. His return to the Capitol on Feb. 12 had the look of a class reunion as he hugged and shook hands with former colleagues. But he made it clear he was there for urgent business.
Thurmond replaced Dr. Cheryl Atkinson, who was on the job for 16 months. She left with a six-month severance package totaling $114,583, plus unused vacation.
Delegation members invited Thurmond to the meeting to find out how they could help him untangle the DeKalb school crisis.
Rep. Howard Mosby, House delegation chairman, told Thurmond they want to be partners in getting the district, which has 99,000 students, back on firm footing.
“What do you need from us,” Mosby said. “Let us know what that is and we stand ready to work with you.”
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools on Dec. 17 placed DeKalb on accreditation probation after a scathing report on the state of the school system. It slammed the board for “dysfunctional governance, declining student performance” and school finances that “have deteriorated to a point that is dangerous.”
The report described the schools as being in a “state of confusion and chaos.”
“The board has given me the authority and their support to make the difficult decisions that must be made to restore full accreditation, not probationary accreditation, to the DeKalb County School District,” Thurmond said. “That’s my No. 1 priority.”
At his first board meeting on Feb. 11, he told the parents he has “no magic wand” to make the district’s problems disappear. But he promised to use his political clout to restore the system’s good name.
On his first day on the job earlier that day, he sent an e-mail to employees telling them he needs their support and assistance.
“During this critical period, we must focus on fulfilling the school district’s core mission – providing our students with a quality education,” he said. “Please rededicate yourself to the important task of improving student academic achievement at every grade level. Together, we will move this school district forward. We cannot rest until it is once again ranked among the best public school systems in America.”
At Tuesday’s meeting with the joint delegation, Sen. Jason Carter brought up the criticism by some in DeKalb that Thurmond lacks experience in education.
“I had no experience working in DFACS,” he said. “I had never worked at the Georgia Department of Labor.”
Thurmond is credited with turning around a troubled Georgia Department of Family and Children Services when he served as its head in the mid-1990s, and he made organizational improvements at the Department of Labor as commissioner during his three terms between 1998 and 2010.
“Really, the key for a great leader is to know what you don’t know and find someone who does,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Thurmond promised to rely on the district’s administrators and classroom professionals, noting that the SACS report focused on governance and leadership issues as the greatest problems.
Mosby said Tuesday’s meeting was the first in what he hopes will be a series of talks with Thurmond on improving the schools.
Afterward, Thurmond gave insight into his strategy to deal with the crisis and the state board hearing.
“We want to emphasize that some missteps were made,” he said. “But we want to focus on the future and not on the past. We want to let the state school board know that we’re committed and dedicated to doing whatever it takes.”