The past year for the district has seen rough patches with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placing the district on accredited probation, the exit of former superintendent Dr. Cheryl Atkinson and Gov. Nathan Deal suspending and later replacing several school board members.
During his short tenure with DeKalb schools, Thurmond has managed to help the district eliminate a significant deficit.
“Since 2012, we’ve been laboring under a $14.5 million budget deficit and through cost-cutting, we were able to leverage some financial revenue sources that were there but we had not necessarily taken advantage of,” he said. “So that’s huge in bringing fiscal stability back to the district.”
Upon taking the helm, Thurmond said his No. 1 priority was to address the 11 action items raised by SACS and to remove any type of caveat as it related to the accreditation of the district. A few weeks ago, the district had what he quoted as a “mid-term exam” by SACS, where they were given high marks in all categories.
“SACS determined that we were making noteworthy and significant progress and I think that bodes well for us when SACS returns at the end of this year, which will be in December,” said Thurmond.
Besides the accreditation issue, the school system received results from an audit a while back that said the central office was too top-heavy, which was also a factor in the SACS sanction. Thurmond said that was an important component of removing the district from a deficit status into a profit status, by reducing costs at the central office by a significant amount.
“We reduced personnel costs by $7 million and we cut operational costs by an additional $5 million,” he said. “That was a major part of what helped us transform the deficit in the previous fiscal year.”
The district has also dealt with low morale from parents, teachers, faculty and staff in the past few years and Thurmond said he has attempted to spend time with all employees.
“We have 14,000-plus employees, so one of the things I’ve done is attempt to engage in a very personal way with all of our employees,” he said. “Obviously our teachers and administrators, but also cafeteria workers, bus drivers and security officers. In the DeKalb school district that I’m running, there will be no big I’s and little You’s.”
He added there are still challenges to face, but at the same time he said he thinks employees as well as external stakeholders recognize that progress is being made.
One other top challenge Thurmond discussed is improving operational efficiency — especially as it relates to the district bus system. He mentioned they want to make sure students are picked up and delivered safely and on time. Another important challenge is academic achievement.
Recently, U.S. News & World Report ranked three DeKalb high schools in the top 15 of the state for academic achievement, said Thurmond. The DeKalb School for the Arts was No. 2, Chamblee Charter High School was No. 5 and Arabia Mountain was No. 14.
“Now do we have schools we’re going to work with who are underperforming?” he said. “Absolutely, but you also have to celebrate your successes as well as recognizing your challenges.”
With this being his first school year opening, Thurmond said he is as excited as a first-grade student on the first day and is looking forward to great things ahead for DeKalb schools.
“Our goal is that we’re laying the foundation for the creation of a model urban public school district and DeKalb will be a national model that many other communities, I think, will emulate in the coming years,” he said.
His tenure as interim superintendent extends through his February 2014 contract and he said he is not focused on if he will remain beyond that, but taking it day by day.
“I come to work and approach it as if this is my last day and if this is my last day I’ve got to work like I may never get another chance to impact a young person’s life like I have right now,” said Thurmond. “All that [permanent superintendent search] will work out — that’s a decision for Dr. [Melvin] Johnson and the board. But I’m not worried about it.”