Brookhaven leaders believe the removal of DeKalb School Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson is only a small step in rebuilding the county's school system.
"Like the Ottoman Empire in 1914, DeKalb's system is the 'Sick Man' of Atlanta Metro public education," said Kim Gokce, chairman of the Cross Keys Foundation. "No Sultan could save the Turkish empire and no superintendent can save this system. The problem is systematic and more deep than one individual. Whatever the board does, Cross Keys will be home to 6,500 students who strive for an education and succeed in spite of system leadership, not because of it."
The DeKalb Board of Education is set to approve a separation agreement with Atkinson on Friday. According to a statement from the system, "the Board and Dr. Atkinson each determined and believe that it is in the best interest of all concerned that there be a mutual separation and they wish each other well in all their future endeavors."
"This is a good opportunity for some of the board members to see their way, too," said Cross Keys High graduate Mpaza Kapembwa, now a student at Williams College in Massachusetts. "That way, we can really start rebuilding our system. The last thing we want to have is another circus in choosing a new superintendent."
"The removal of Atkinson is a small step in the right direction," said Shawn Keefe, co-president of the Ashford Park School Education Foundation. "But what needs to be addressed and radically changed, however, is the overall culture of system and that cannot happen until Gov. [Nathan] Deal dissolves the current BOE following the Feb. 21 state hearing."
The DeKalb school system is under probation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The board is set to appear before the Georgia Department of Education on Feb. 21 to determine if DeKalb is making enough progress in meeting SACS standards. The state education department could recommend to Deal that he replace DeKalb's entire school board.
"I would have more confidence in a board appointed by the governor to choose the new leader of the school system because they will have no political ambitions," said Kapembwa, who is a Gates Millennium Scholar, a Coca Cola Scholar and a Dell Scholar. "The exit shouldn't make us optimistic because board politics will still precede what is best for our system.
"After being put on probation, it is clear some board members are more concerned about protecting their reputation so everyone is coming out saying they are the good guy. Some board members might see this as a chance to redeem themselves if they pick a leader who is competent."
Some local leaders believe that a change in superintendents won't solve the system's problems.
"Although I believe changes are needed, I do not believe changes in the superintendent position solve the board issues specifically addressed be the accreditation board report," said District 3 Brookhaven city councilman Bates Mattison. "As a parent of a child who attends a DeKalb school, I am extremely interested in finding a solution to the problems facing the system."
"The DeKalb School Board has proven how dysfunctional and uncommitted they are to the task of putting our children's education first," said District 4 city council Joe Gebbia, whose district includes Brookhaven's only high school, Cross Keys. "The fact that we are this close to losing accreditation is not only a breakdown in leadership, but also indicative of the breakdown in the board's moral compass. I hope the new interim superintendent can make the necessary changes and is capable of keeping the focus where it needs to be - on the students and not politics.
"And as they move forward, I hope they take the task of hiring the most qualified candidate seriously. Unfortunately, Cheryl Atkinson was not that candidate."
Speculation has been mounting over the past week that Atkinson's tenure might be coming to an end.
"I am obviously disappointed with the turmoil surrounding the system, as it does nothing but distract from the only thing that really matters - providing a high quality educational opportunity for our students," said Brookhaven District 2 city councilman Jim Eyre. "I can only hope this is the first step of many to get the system back on track to focusing on the positive growth and development of our students."
Eyre's district includes Ashford Park Elementary School.
"Atkinson has proven that she was not the right choice back in 2011," Keefe said. "What DeKalb desperately needs is a superintendent and board that will work jointly and transparently in making the students and taxpayers (in that order), and not themselves, their top priorities. It is time to bring our educational concentration back to the classrooms and away from the board rooms. It is time to strive for excellence in our schools and not be an embarrassment."
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