As Decatur’s School System takes a long look in the mirror, cracks begin to show
This story has been updated.
City Schools of Decatur’s search for a new superintendent is showing that the school system’s greatest challenge may be coping with its own success.
This week, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, a consultant hired by CSD to conduct the superintendent search, released reports based on interviews with parents, teachers, School Board members, city officials, local businesses and community members. The reports are intended to inform the board about the ideal candidate to replace Superintendent Phyllis Edwards, who recently announced she is resigning.
Brad Draeger with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates presented his findings at the June 9 School Board meeting.
“People from all walks of life in this community are extremely proud of these schools,” he told School Board members. He said after his interviews with various focus groups, people followed up with him to add to their initial comments. “I had so many people follow up, people who met with me wanted to meet with me again.”
According to the reports HYA released, the focus group members had a lot on their minds.
CSD’s test scores rank among the highest in the state. Its success has driven up property values in Decatur as parents hungry for a good public education inside the Perimeter have bought up homes inside Decatur’s city limits. The system even investigates whether parents are on the up and up when they enroll their children, in some cases sending out private investigators to verify addresses. Edwards, who has been with the system 12 years, gets much of the credit for the system’s success, according to the consultant’s reports.
But the reports also offer a glimpse into the doubts, fears and troubles of a school system that’s lauded for its achievements. Some concerns cropped up in every interview.
According to the report, there’s widespread anxiety that the system won’t live up to its own expectations of high achievement. The consultant also found that participants listed “Pressure to not overbuild the facilities—low confidence in the current facility plan” as one of the system’s challenges. There’s also “morale and philosophy” issues at the city’s high school, the report found. Participants in the focus groups told the consultant the “Board of Education could be a challenge for the new Superintendent.” Even some board members reportedly told the consultant that, “staff confidence in (the) Board is not high.”
School Board Chairman Garrett Goebel said the reports offer an unvarnished view of CSD, and that’s a good thing. He also added that there’s another report that contains all of the individual comments, but that report has not been published on the CSD website.
“You have to be able to look at your good marks and your warts,” the chairman said. “If you want to be happy as an individual, as a district or a group, you have to accept good and bad and it’s only by looking at the whole picture you can do what we’ve done, which is go from good to great. I don’t think we can become a better system without taking a fresh look where we’ve come from, where we’re at and where we need to go.”
Goebel could not speak to the “morale and philosophy” issues at the high school referenced in the report because some of it is a personnel matter.
“I just want to say the personnel issues, the operational issues those are the job and the role of the superintendent,” Goebel added. “The school climate and culture of that is a potential role for the board.”
He also doesn’t know which board member told the consultant that staff confidence in the School Board wasn’t high.
“It’s not my comment, but it’s probably a healthy perspective to have for the board to be concerned about staff confidence in a board that has changed,” Goebel said.
Goebel was recently elected chairman in a 3-2 vote over the incumbent, Bernadette Seals. He was supported by the board’s two newest members: Annie Caiola and Lewis Jones.
During the June 9 meeting, Caiola rebutted some of the comments made about the board.
She compared joining the boards to a personal experience of suddenly finding herself with new step-siblings as an adult. Caiola said new families have to navigate complex new relationships and invent or improvise on traditions.
“We’re starting to get our groove on,” Caiola said. “We’re getting there. We’re getting it. I look forward to the next few months.”
Draeger told board members there’s no shortage of interest in the job.
“I’ve never stood before a board at this point in a search and had 61 applicants,” he said.
School Board members will hold a closed door meeting in August to review the candidates.
Read more: Here are the two reports published on the CSD website. Goebel informed Decaturish he will ask about publishing the third report for the public’s review.