State panel recommends Dooly school board suspensions

Dooly County School Board Chair Melvilla West, testifying in front of the Georgia Board of Education in Atlanta on Thursday, said that a negative 2015 review of the school system was “very subjective.”
Dooly County School Board Chair Melvilla West, testifying in front of the Georgia Board of Education in Atlanta on Thursday, said that a negative 2015 review of the school system was “very subjective.” mlee@macon.com

Georgia’s state school board has recommended the suspension of all five members of the Dooly County school board.

The state’s top education panel made the decision in a unanimous voice vote Thursday night at its office in Atlanta.

“In the opinion of the board, it came down to governance,” said Georgia Board of Education Chairman Mike Royal.

The state school board’s recommendation now heads to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who will decide whether to remove any or all of the board members.

Much of the seven hours of testimony focused on the lower-than-average scores accreditation agency AdvancED gave Dooly schools on governance and leadership.

After a visit by evaluators in April 2015, AdvancED reported several challenges: an assistant superintendent working as an acting superintendent for months; unfilled jobs; complaints of a lack of trust among staff, parents and the community; and allegations of school board members interfering in day-to-day management of the school system.

But at the hearing, Dooly County school board Chairwoman Melvilla West called the report “very subjective.” She said that people who have a beef with the board or the system use the review process to make complaints. West also said that previous superintendents have not been honest with the board.

“We’re accepting full responsibly because we’re the ones sitting here today,” West said.

After the vote, she said she thinks it is unfortunate that the citizens of Dooly County are set to lose their elected representatives based on a report she sees as flawed.

Her own term on the board ends at the end of this year, so she does not plan to appeal any removal.

Dooly’s scores were in the bottom 5 percent of the roughly 2,000 institutions AdvancED evaluated that year, said company President and CEO Mark Elgart during his testimony Thursday.

The report listed other concerns, such as the lack of a way to recruit and keep good staff, and the lack of a plan for improving conditions.

In July 2015, AdvancED sent the Dooly County school system a letter indicating that the system had been put “under review,” which is the last step before losing accreditation. That downgrade is part of what triggered the state hearing.

On Thursday, interim Superintendent Celeta Thomas testified about what the system was doing to answer to AdvancED’s concerns, such as communicating better with parents and formulating a strategic plan and getting it online.

“It’s a work in progress, but we’re getting there,” Thomas said.

But under cross-examination, Thomas also said she attempted to resign from a job that causes her heavy stress in order to go work in another county, and that it’s hard to keep good staff. She also confirmed that she’s aware of families transferring their children to schools in Houston and Crisp counties. She confirmed that numerous members of the public have complained to her about the school board, alleging micromanaging, bickering and failing to follow policies.

Elgart testified that upon AdvancED’s last visit, in February, reviewers found “little to no improvement” over the 2015 review.

Elgart said if there’s no improvement by the time of the system’s next review, which is scheduled for early next year, the system could lose accreditation. He said that a system that’s run as Dooly’s is reported to be run will be “compromised” until leadership works efficiently.

It’s not the only attention Dooly schools have gotten in Atlanta lately. The county’s elementary and middle schools are among some 120 schools statewide that Georgia labels as “failing,” for three years of low scores on a key state test. That would make them subject to state takeover if Georgia voters Tuesday approve a contentious proposal that would give the governor the power to appoint a school takeover superintendent.

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee