There is a proverb, purported to have originated in China, that says: “Out of chaos comes opportunity.” If we put stock in such adages, then the Dougherty County School System has much opportunity before it.
With Superintendent Joshua Murfree on his way out after a “mutually agreed termination” with the School Board, he leaves behind a troubled system facing a laundry list of major problems.
Murfree was hired in June 2010 and trouble immediately followed. He inherited a CRCT cheating scandal from former superintendent Sally Whatley, but then new problems mounted: allegations of school lunch fraud by top school officials, repaying the bond of a student arrested at Monroe High School, attempted interference in the arrest powers of the school district’s police department, awarding of contracts in direct violation of system policy, and state Department of Education investigations into questionable expenditures of federal Title I funds.
Last month, the School Board finally had enough and provided Murfree with an early exit. Although he’ll be paid through the terms of his contract, his final day as superintendent is Dec. 18 — a full six months before his contract’s June 2013 expiration.
The question now is: Where does the DCSS go from here?
The most pressing issue is finding an interim superintendent as quickly as possible. The board, however, appears divided on which direction to take. To his credit, Board Chairman James Bush has contacted the Georgia School Boards Association and asked for names of candidates from outside the area who could handle the job of interim school chief until the new board takes office in January, with newly elected members Lane Price and Robert Youngblood taking their seats.
There is also a tussle simmering over who will lead the board for the next two years. Will Bush keep the chairmanship, or will Darrell Ealum or Carol Tharin take the gavel? Tharin stressed last week that she was “not actively seeking” the position, but expected to be nominated.
Amid hiring a school chief and selecting a chair, board members also will have to deal with the State Department of Education, which is getting more deeply involved in the system’s affairs.
Earlier this month, the state placed the district at “high risk” status, citing unsatisfactory performance, management standards that did not meet 34 Code of Federal Regulations requirements, insufficient organization to implement federal program grant review requirements and a lack of timely district responses to recent Georgia DOE federal programs review concerns.
The state is now involved in all DCSS federal programs and has placed the system on “reimbursement status” for FY 2013. This means purchase orders, contracts and invoices must be submitted to state auditors, who will then review them and reimburse the system — if the expenditures are allowed.
The new board’s work, however, will actually begin long before its first meeting on Jan. 14. Last week the Georgia Board of Education sent registered letters to all seven current board members, “inviting” them to a meeting Monday afternoon in Atlanta with the state board’s Audit Committee to discuss the district’s federal programs problems.
All DCSS Board members except Milton “June Bug” Griffin and outgoing member Anita Williams-Brown attended, as did DCSS Executive Finance and Director of Operations Kenneth Dyer and Board Attorney Tommy Coleman. Incoming board members Youngblood and Price also attended.
The Audit Committee then chided the board members, listing problems in Race To The Top grants, Title I Part A funding, School Improvement Grants and Free and Reduced Meal numbers.
At the end of the meeting, Georgia DOE internal audit manager Gerald Schaefer informed the local board that the he had sent a letter to the U.S. Inspector General’s Office apprising federal officials of the mess in Dougherty County.
Especially telling was Schaefer’s last paragraph in that letter, which read: “While the GaDOE has acted responsibly and promptly to address concerns related to Federal program operations at DCSS, I wanted to ensure that you were aware of these concerns and our corrective actions.”
Monday’s meeting was not only meant to make sure the DCSS Board is fully aware of the problems, it was also intended to help the state DOE and state BOE cover themselves from additional U.S. Department of Education scrutiny.
After all, if the state approved obviously flawed federal grant budgets in FY 2011 and FY 2012, how many other flawed budgets also were approved in the state? It’s clear that Georgia officials would like to avoid additional audits of the state’s 188 other school districts. That point was made clear when audit committee chair Larry Winter said, “We are not going to put the future of Georgia’s other 1.8 million children at risk.”
The Dougherty County School System’s problems of the past two years have not been a failure at the school level, but have occurred on the top two floors of the DCSS administration building. A thorough house-cleaning is in order.
And this is what makes the hiring of a new superintendent so critical. It will take a strong leader to make the high-level personnel changes necessary to right this listing ship.
It will be a daunting task ... but out of chaos comes opportunity.