He will also be the spokesman for the county at the Feb. 21 suspension hearing before the Georgia Board of Education, taking questions from state officials. After that hearing, the state board could recommend to Gov. Nathan Deal that he remove the DeKalb School Board members.
Thurmond served five years as a state representative, from 1987 to 1992, and his return to the Capitol had the look of a class reunion as he hugged and shook hands with former colleagues. But Thurmond made it clear he was there for urgent business.
“I need your help,” he told the meeting attended by a majority of the joint delegation. “The DeKalb School District needs your help, your insight, your direction. And I’m focused on listening to all sides.”
Delegation members invited the newly hired Thurmond to the meeting to find out how they could help him untangle the DeKalb school crisis.
“We want to be your partner. What do you need from us? Let us know what that is and we stand ready to work with you,” House delegation chairman Rep. Howard Mosby told Thurmond.
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. SACS 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 and that’s my number one priority,” said Thurmond, who was sworn in to office on Feb. 9.
At his first board meeting Monday night, Thurmond told the parents “I have 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, he sent an email to 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 the Feb. 12 delegation meeting, 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 Childrens Services when he served as its head in the mid-1990s, and he made organizational improvements at the Georgia Department of Labor as commissioner during his three terms there 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, the House delegation chairman, said Tuesday’s meeting was the first in what he hopes will be a series of talks with Thurmond on improving the schools.
Afterwards, 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.”