By Jody Steinberg

The common theme for the DeKalb County schools these days is “focus.”

In her 2011 “State of the System” speech on Feb. 17, Interim DeKalb Superintendent Ramona Tyson said she’s focused on providing students and teachers with the opportunity for a “safe and positive” learning experience.

Introducing Tyson, school board Chairman Tom Bowen said the board is focused on accountability, change and educating every student.

And John Kelley, chair of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, which hosted Tyson’s talk, promised the business group plans to focus on two things: “Education, and Education.”

“Nothing is more important than education,” said Kelley, Metro East Manager of Georgia Power Co. “You cannot recruit businesses without a strong education system.”

Tyson’s 2011 address didn’t dwell on many of the high-profile controversies the system has faced during her tenure.

Instead, Tyson talked about accreditation, the system’s budget, planning and redistricting. She bragged a bit about the academic recognitions earned by DCSS schools and students and plugged SPLOST IV – the special local option sales tax to fund capital improvements –while repeatedly reminding her audience that the district’s students brought them together.

“Our core business is teaching and learning for the 98,306 students enrolled in our schools,” Tyson said. “Every action and reaction should be for their benefit.”

Tyson touched on the controversial plans to consolidate and redistrict schools, the second attempt in two years to cut the number of vacant seats in the schools..

“I have never seen anything bring out this magnitude of parent involvement,” she said, referring to the original redistricting plan, which was designed by a consultant and proposed publicly in January.

In the month that followed, thousands of parents attended workshops,more than 5,000 responses were submitted to the online survey and Tyson and the board were inundated with letters. All of this resulted in the superintendent submitting scaled-back recommendations to the board Feb. 7, which will be voted on March 7.

“My recommendations reflect a productive process that reflects the community input,” she said. Her plan, which calls for closing eight schools, will save $12 million the first year and eliminate 5,125 of 11,310 empty seats, she said.

But “no one will lose a job due to redistricting and school closures,” she said. “Resources will follow the student.”

When Tyson took over about a year ago from former Superintendent Crawford Lewis, who resigned amid accusations of wrongdoing, negative attention on the school board, administration and dysfunctional system distracted the focus from the students.

Improving the system from within, Tyson said, and starts with a transparent and ethical environment, which Tyson said begins with: a confidential system to protect employees who see and report any wrongdoing; transparency and strong policies to preclude any potential conflict of interest that would allow any DCSS employee to use their position for personal gain; closely audited systems of checks and balances on spending public money; and promoting mutual respect among students and staff “so students feel safe, valued and hopeful, and can reach their full academic potential in a bullying-free environment.”

Here are some other topics she discussed during her speech:

The budget

Thanks to a federal stimulus dollars that were received well into this current budget year, the system actually has the money to carry forward to a balanced budget and to increase the reserve fund. All 11- and 12-month employees will have pay restored for the furlough days, and 12-month employees will have 11 of 15 furlough days restored.

The board decided not to seek a property tax millage increase this year, in spite of reduced income from lower property taxes values, Tyson said.

Race to the Top

Federal funds from a Race to the Top grant will help DeKalb “meet our goal to support progressive education and innovation,” she said, including recruiting teachers, establishing standards and assessments for success, building at data system to measure student improvement and turn around low achieving schools.

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation

Following successful resolution of an inquiry last year from SACS that put the system on its toes, DeKalb is now preparing for the March 2012 assessment process that is part of the five-year renewal of its accreditation. To earn the renewal, the system will review all SACS standards, which include clear vision and purpose, stakeholder communications and a long-term plan for continuous improvement.

Capital Improvements and SPLOST IV

“Construction costs are coming in at the lowest and most competitive prices in years,” said Tyson, and the district anticipates state reimbursements for some of the improvements. Chamblee High School will get a new building scheduled to open in 2013.

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