Interim DeKalb School Superintendent Michael Thurmond told north DeKalb parents the troubled district is dealing with its problems.

“Today we are in a much stronger position than we have been in a very, very long time,” Thurmond said.

He said district finances have improved significantly since last year.

“I am happy to report today that we have eliminated the $14.7 million deficit we brought forward from 2012,” he told members of the Dunwoody Chamblee Parents Coalition during a morning meeting at Dunwoody High School on Sept. 11.

“We just closed out [Fiscal Year] 13 with a $9.5 million fund balance. When I arrived in the district, the district was operating with less than $100,000 [in fund balance].”

But he said the district needed $60 million in reserves. “It’s going to take three years to really restore the budget,” he said. “We’re still $50 million away from where we ought to be.”

Thurmond, a former state labor commissioner who was named interim superintendent in February, also predicted the DeKalb system’s accreditation would be restored fully by the end of the year.

SACS, a regional accreditation agency, placed DeKalb on accreditation probation last year, citing infighting among school board members. In March, Gov. Nathan Deal replaced six board members.

Thurmond reminded his Dunwoody audience that an interim report by the agency found the district had made significant progress in addressing its problems. “I’m certain we will no longer be on probation at the end of the year,” he said.

Thurmond said he planned to start developing a long-range strategic plan for the school system. The system’s population is growing, he said, and, facing an audience that included some calling for a separate Dunwoody school system, Thurmond argued that the best way to protect schools in particular areas of the county was to make the entire system better.

“We are all in this together…,” he said. “A school district divided against itself will not be successful. I need your help to build this opportunity. Build the bridge and we will all benefit from it as a community.”

He said differences in student achievement did not reflect racial differences, but economic ones. White students from rich families perform better than poor white students, he said, just as black students from rich families perform better than poor black students. “It’s not about race,” he said. “If you look at the differential…, the differential is almost the same.

“The great question is not how well my children or your children will do, but how well children from economically disadvantaged families will do,” he said. “And all economically-disadvantaged children are not low achievers.”

But if some schools are perceived as offering better educations than others, parents will find ways to enroll their children in those schools, he said.

“Our parents love their children,” Thurmond said. “Their capacities in terms of engagement and involvement [with the schools] may not be the same, but the love is the same.”

Asked how students manage to migrate from one part of the county to schools in another, Thurmond said parents are willing to make sacrifices for their children’s benefit.

“Parents will do whatever it takes to get their children to what they perceive as a quality education,” he said. “What we have to do is create quality schools throughout the district.”

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.