On the heels of an Aug. 28 letter from AdvanceED’s president and CEO, Mark Elgart, citing allegations of stewardship failure on the part of the School Board and interference in the district’s day-to-day operations, School Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson recommended to a hastily called Sept. 5 meeting of School Board members that the process of responding to SACS be closed to the public.
AdvanceED is the parent company of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits the district.
In March, SACS let the school system keep its “accredited on advisement” status after a review team said that it found some improvement but that the district still has other issues to address before gaining full accreditation.
Atkinson told board members Wednesday that she will establish a special review team of herself, School Board Chairman Eugene Walker, Vice Chairman Paul Womack, legal representatives, two senior staff members and a communications representative to respond to the letter.
“We’re going to try to move as expediently as we can through this process,” she said.
Before leading the vote to close the discussions on the district’s response to SACS, Walker said the goal was to be as open and transparent as possible.
The district has until Sept. 28 – 30 days from the date of the letter – to respond to the allegations that Elgart said stemmed from “numerous complaints” that SACS received about the school system’s handling of its financial resources. The district received the letter on Aug. 29.
Elgart said the complaints allege that the School Board failed to be “good stewards” of the district’s financial resources for the past five years, that it interferes in day-to-day operations of the district, unduly influences hiring of individuals, and leaks confidential information, among others.
“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 AdvanceED Accreditation Standards,” Elgart wrote.
“In addition, the complaints allege that the Board of Education has failed to ensure that the financial resources of the school system are budgeted and allocated within the means of the school system as well as in accordance with local policy and state law.”
Elgart said the complaints include adopting budgets that do not adequately cover the district’s financial expenses for legal fees and utilities.
The SACS letter comes a week after New York-based bond-rating agency Moody’s downgraded $384.9 million of the district’s debt on Aug. 20, impacting the rates at which the district will be able to borrow money.
Moody’s, which rates the creditworthiness of school districts, lowered $222.9 million in outstanding general obligation debt to Aa3 from Aa2 and revised the outlook to stable from negative. It also downgraded $162 million in outstanding Certificates of Participation to A1 from Aa3.
That downgrade came two months after Standard & Poor’s downgraded the district’s credit rating to A+/Stable from AA-/Negative in June. In that downgrade, the school district’s series 2007 general obligation bonds went from AA-/Negative to A+/Stable due to inconsistent financial performance and inability to maintain adequate reserves.
In June, the DeKalb School Board approved a $760 million general operating budget that included more than $77 million in cuts that increased class sizes; reduced salaries 6.25 percent for all employees; increased furlough days for district teachers and employees; cut teaching positions; and eliminated media specialists and counselors.
“If, after review of your response, we believe the DeKalb County Public School System may be in violation of the AdvanceED Accreditation Standards or Policies, a Special Review Team may be appointed to visit the school system,” Elgart said.
Walker, the School Board’s chairman, said Wednesday that he is baffled by the SACS letter.
“I’m surprised that SACS felt the need to look into this when they already reviewed our operations in March,” he said.
Other allegations in the Aug, 28 SACS letter include the board’s interference in the day-to-day operations of the system by working to minimize and neutralize the administration of the school system.
Elgart said that it was reported to SACS that the board has, at the least, blurred the lines between board governance and administrative leadership and, at the worst, stepped into the role of administrative head of the school system.
“Such instances include undue influence on the hiring of personnel, interference with budgeting procedures and accounting, and undermining the authority of school administrators and supervisors throughout the system,” he wrote.
The letter also lists allegations of board members releasing confidential information that was shared during executive sessions.
That allegation might stem from the superintendent search in 2011. One of the finalists, former Hickory, N.C., Superintendent Lillie Cox – who was the School Board’s pick for superintendent – withdrew her name from the race after details of her negotiations were leaked to the media.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Atkinson said their review team will prepare recommendations to address the agency’s concerns, submit a draft response to board members for review and comments, and submit the formal response to SACS.
She did not give dates on when the actions will be completed but said it will get done before the 30-day deadline.