Teacher pay and classroom size were some of the questions asked of Dr. Cheryl Atkinson, superintendent of DeKalb County Schools, by parents at a meeting of the Dunwoody Chamblee Parent Council last week.
Susan Tallent told Atkinson that one of her biggest concerns is that teacher pay grades are not aligned with that of surrounding counties.
“For the last four or five years, they’ve taken approximately a 15 percent pay cut, yet we still have people within the central office who haven’t taken a pay cut,” said Tallent. “We talk about the front lines; we need to support our front lines.”
In response, Atkinson did not address central office pay cuts, but said that any time the board implements a reduction, that it applies to everyone. However, said Atkinson, she thought that only two groups, bus drivers and food servers, did not face a recent reduction because pay for those positions were already at a low level.
“I’m going to try to tell it like it is,” said Atkinson. “We have to get our expenditures aligned to our revenues. “Make no mistake the bulk of our payroll is teachers. We want to be competitive and I thought we were competitive, but I’ll have to double check that.”
Lynn Deutsch asked Atkinson when parents could expect to see things improve like class sizes reduced and the end of teacher furlough days or at least the elimination of some furlough days.
“At least in my community,” said Deutsch, “we saw a lot of good teachers leave and we expect we will see more leave because, unlike previous years we’ve seen a lot of other systems rebounding faster than DeKalb and they are hiring.”
Atkinson said that she didn’t know when improvements would be seen because she didn’t know what was going to happen with the digest, or if the school system was going to have to deal with cuts by the state.
“I can tell you that this year we have a budget that’s directly aligned to what our expected revenues are,” said Atkinson. “I would love to say that we’ll be able to fix that next year, but that would be unfair to everybody because I don’t know that. When I was looking at our budget and the development, initially we didn’t have furlough days on the table. But when we recognized the significance of the issue, then we really didn’t have a lot of choices to be able to deal with the deficit.”
Tom Fischgrund, a parent of three children who were all graduated from DeKalb County schools said that the county has a very dysfunctional school board which has led to two investigations by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
“You talked a lot about alignment,” said Fischgrund. “Clearly our school board is not aligned and in the same way that you’ve done zero based budgeting and started from scratch on a lot of issues, have you looked at or would you look at splitting the school district into two which would make the school district more manageable.”
Atkinson said that as a large system, understanding the needs of a particular region, area or school can be challenging and that’s one of the reasons why the system now has regional superintendents.
“We are starting to do things away from the central office and into this regional approach,” said Atkinson. “I don’t think that the answer is breaking something up. It is about systemic processes that Identify what the needs are and aligning the resources to those needs and processes, and a vision that everyone shares and executes.”
Fischgrund said that he understood that Atkinson didn’t favor the approach, but said his question was “have you looked at or considered it.”
Atkinson said she had not.
Julia LeDoyen, PTA president for Vanderlyn Elementary School, asked Atkinson about a recent directive to train all volunteers, even ones already in the schools. The 30-minute training sessions, said LeDoyen, were seen as a major deterrent to volunteerism.
A law passed earlier this year broadened the list of people mandated to report child abuse. The list includes volunteers at churches, summer camps and parents who chaperone a field trip, among others. If the volunteer fails to report suspected abuse, they could be charged with a misdemeanor with penalties of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The county is mandating the 30-minute training sessions to all volunteers.
“My other concern is that there doesn’t seem to be a system in place to enforce that the volunteer that comes in has actually been trained,” said LeDoyen. “Ultimately I think what we’re all trying to do is make sure that our kids are safe and well watched and I think what we’re doing is putting a system in place where we’re going to potentially have fewer eyes on our kids.”
Atkinson replied that the school system must abide by the state requirements. She also asked her legal representative to speak to the question.
Chief Legal Officer Ron Ramsey, who is also a Democratic state senator, told parents to blame state Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) and state Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) for the new law.
“The objective is to protect children and sometimes the law can be burdensome,” said Ramsey. “Oftentimes we have laws with good intentions that have unintended consequences.”
Ramsey encouraged parents to speak to Taylor and Millar about the law.