The event was a Leadership DeKalb and DeKalb Chamber Of Commerce breakfast at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, billed as the halfway mark in his 90-day progress toward a written plan of action.
Thurmond said he adopted “an asset-driven strategy,” in which a crisis offers opportunities.
“I look at the assets. Once you recognize them, problems pale in comparison,” he said.
He said the problems went beyond the accreditation probation the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the system on in December.
“The first thing we have to do is get our fiscal house in order. That’s a mandate regardless of SACS,” Thurmond said.
Although saying the system’s $750 million budget “is still a lot of money,” he hinted at a tax hike.
“There’s going to be no tax increase until we demonstrate to the public we are managing what we have,” Thurmond said.
He said parents like himself — and his own father — influence grades more than superintendents can.
“Daddy couldn’t read or write but he was present in the room,” Thurmond said. “I see us shoulder to shoulder, but you also have to be present.”
Perceptions of racial and north-south divides have gotten in the way of finding common ground, Thurmond said.
“We have to recognize that some of the dysfunction in the school board is really the dysfunction in the county,” he said, recalling a visit to Dunwoody that “politically, felt like 2,000 miles” from his home in Stone Mountain.
Thurmond ended on an upbeat note.
“In the future, DeKalb will be a national model,” he said.
Chamber member and Lithonia resident Greg Russell, whose son attends Arabia Mountain High School, said he felt “positive” about the question-and-answer session.
“I’ve heard him three times and each time, he’s like a minister. To me, his job is to inspire people to believe, because people have been down,” Russell said.
He said morale has been picking up at Parent Teacher Association meetings.
“The teachers are excited. They say, ‘He’s doing a good job, so far,’ because he’s coming out and talking with them,” Russell said. “So even though he can’t give them more money right now, he’s giving them better support.”
Russell said his main concern is accreditation.
“My son’s a junior,” he said. “Obviously it’s important to me.”