By Jody Steinberg

Putting out fires isn’t what Ramona Tyson had in mind when she accepted the job of interim superintendent of DeKalb County Schools last February. But that’s the best way to describe her typical workday running a school system in crisis, she told members of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce at their monthly meeting Sept.13

“If that’s what it takes to change the culture of this district and restore the trust and morale of employees, parents, teachers and citizens of the district, I say ‘Bring it on.’”

In recent years, the chamber has hosted the superintendent’s annual “State of the System” address, but Tyson came to address the business community’s concerns about the beleaguered school system, which has under intense public scrutiny for more than a year.

Former Superintendent Crawford Lewis and chief operating officer Pat Reed face indictments over mishandling funds and questionable purchasing practices. Budget cuts that reduced teacher take-home pay and retirement contributions had been chipping away at employee morale, widening the gap between the administration and the teachers.

The difficulties increased with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) – the accrediting agency that withdrew Clayton County Schools’ accreditation in 2008 — issued an inquiry that demanded 2,503 pages of evidence in support of the 45-page executive response.

Tyson expressed confidence that the changes put into place in recent months will not only satisfy the SACS inquiry, but are a step towards improving moral, ethics and operations.

Tyson described the ways she is attempting to address the district’s problems.

SACS Inquiry: The DeKalb school system established the state’s first school system whistleblower hotline; revised policies clarify purchasing, staff conflicts of interest; and hired a new audit director – Gary Babst, who started with a 100-day plan to evaluate policies, procedures and practices and make recommendations for best practices in ethics and efficiency. Tyson and board members participated in an all-day, invitation only SACS seminar in which they developed a plan of action to address a specific issue facing DeKalb schools.

Budget: With a shortfall of up to $100 million this year, salaries had to be cut, so employees were allowed to choose unpaid furlough days rather than straight salary reductions so they could “give something and get something.” Each furlough day saves the county $3.3 million. DeKalb is slated to receive $18.3 million in federal stimulus dollars this fall to be spent on school-level staff salaries and benefits. “Our teachers and other support staff have made a sacrifice in accepting furlough days and salary cuts. I’m excited to bring something back.”

No Child Left Behind/Adequate Yearly Progress: Only five of 24 DeKalb high schools have met the requirements for “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind law. “It’s going to take time and some deliberate plans to address the standards and assure that all schools meet AYP. We need deliberate plans to raise achievement levels so parents will want to stay in their home community schools.”

Communications: Tyson dismissed the communications staff. Budget restrictions have kept her from hiring new staff, so she will outsource communications until the new superintendent takes over. However, Tyson made it clear she receives and answers her own e-mail, and encouraged suggestions with solutions.

Ethics and Operations: From the sale of goods to decentralizing control by giving principals more decision-making authority: “Employees will be held to a higher level of accountability and will be trained every year as long as they work with DeKalb Schools.”

The chamber’s increased interest in the school system was demonstrated by a large turnout – close to 120 business leaders attended. The chamber is increasing its education initiatives. It recently established an education committee, which is in the process of identifying areas where they can make the biggest impact in local education. Chamber members established eduKALB, to promote involvement through school board elections, monitoring and board training. Because eduKALB endorses candidates and political advocacy, it is a separate entity from the Chamber, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

“Whether it ‘s budget, perception, legal, the election year … all of those things have people more engaged and paying closer attention to education than in years past,” chamber president Leonardo McClarty said.

Tyson encouraged attendees to get more involved in their area schools and to offer assistance when she needs their expertise. Some had already helped in the search for an audit director.

Tyson refers to her tenure at the helm as a “season,” with a clear end in sight [a search is under way for a permanent superintendent], Tyson said she will not shrink from the challenges facing the job.

“I am going to do the right thing every time. It might not please everybody, but it’s better to be respected than to be liked,” she said.

Dave Schutten, the outspoken president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, asked her to consider submitting her resume to the superintendent search committee. In spite of the resounding applause, Tyson deferred, emphasizing that her tenure is merely a year, and she is laying the foundation for her replacement. “I’d like to see within my season to move from complete crisis management to visionary leadership, moving us in a stronger and better direction.”