ALBANY, Ga. -- Earlier this month, when the Dougherty County School Board voted 7-0 to replace half of the district's 24 principals, the move caught the attention of the county's residents. The decision also caught the attention of the county's neighbors.
The district's struggles have been well-documented: from CRCT cheating, free and reduced meal fraud, state Department of Education involvement in questionable Title I expenditures, the ouster of a superintendent, abysmal overall standardized test scores, to low graduation rates.
The School Board's decision to replace principals -- including three at the county's four high schools -- was also noticed elsewhere in Southwest Georgia.
As the region's economic hub, what happens in Albany resonates throughout the region, and what happens within the DCSS has a tremendous effect on what happens in Albany.
Donalsonville News publisher Dan Ponder is aware of this and last week wrote a column about the challenges facing the DCSS.
"The slide of Albany's public education system has been long and painful. You don't change the culture of cronyism and the acceptance of mediocrity overnight. However, you have to start somewhere and that is usually at the top," Ponder wrote. "The massive changes in the administrations of many of the schools in Albany may be painful for some, but they are needed collectively to say that there is a new way of doing things. It says that the board is serious about changing the status quo."
"This issue is important to the entire Southwest Georgia region. That is what led a group of business leaders in Donalsonville to discuss it at dinner last week. For this region to be strong and to improve its collective economic well-being, we need for Albany and Dougherty County to become healthy again."
Ponder's column may be read in its entirety on today's editorial page.
State representative Ed Rynders, whose district includes neighboring Lee and Worth counties, agreed with Ponder's assessment.
"When you are the economic engine of a region with the Marine Base, P&G and Miller Brewing, their employees come from a dozen surrounding counties," Rynders said. "When potential employees consider moving to Albany, the first thing people with families do is look at the school system and ask if their children can get a quality education. This affects the entire region.
"Right now the perception of Albany is not good, and it is having a negative impact. Fixing the school system will help improve that perception."
The man given the unenviable task of fixing the DCSS is interim Superintendent Butch Mosely, who was hired in January after former superintendent Joshua Murfree bowed out.
Mosely has a unique perspective because not only is he an experienced school administrator, he is also a member of the Decatur County Commission.
"People in Southwest Georgia are paying attention to what's happening with the Dougherty County School System -- especially the region's chambers of commerce," Mosley, who lives in Climax, said. "Everybody is concerned because Albany is driving the economic train for the region. Right now they generally feel sorry for us, and they are bleeding with us.
"Some people think it (the DCSS) is a lost cause, but I don't agree. But due to the magnitude of the problems we face, it makes the mountain tougher to climb."
So, is the DCSS salvageable?
"Yes, it absolutely is," Mosely said. "It's going to take three to five years of steady progress, and it begins by getting top-notch leaders in all spots downtown. If we put enough good people in the right places, we can fix this thing."
To illustrate the seriousness of the problem, look no further than Deerfield-Windsor School Headmaster Dave Davies.
"I've had people ask me if we were salivating over the problems the Dougherty County School System is facing. My answer is, "No, we are not,'" Davies said. "A struggling DCSS hurts Albany, and that also hurts us."
Ponder, perhaps speaking for the majority of business people and chambers throughout the region, closed his column with these words of encouragement: "So, on behalf of my group of friends, and I hope on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people who call Southwest Georgia home, I simply would say to Butch Mosely and to the DCSS Board, 'We are pulling for you.'"