By Jody Steinberg

Operating under a cloud of scandal and an inquiry from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the DeKalb County schools system is attempting to regain the confidence of the community by introducing steps to increase transparency and address major areas of concern highlighted by the association.

Following a pattern of questionable operations and criminal indictments, the DeKalb system hopes that new initiatives from the board, which include establishing a whistleblower system and hiring an internal staff auditor, will allow the system to move forward without withstanding a full-scale investigation regarding its accreditation.

“Studies have shown that a fraud hotline is one of the biggest deterrents to fraud,” Gary Babst, the new audit director, told the school board as he outlined an initial 100-day plan to ramp up ethics practices and develop and implement a comprehensive system of internal checks and balances, including making all board members and administrators publicly accountable.

Following Babst’s introduction, interim superintendent Ramona Tyson told the school board that DeKalb’s response to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) inquiry addresses all their concerns with a plan of action that resulted in a 45-page response with more than 2,500 pages of supporting evidence.

Though she would not discuss the contents of the report publicly Tyson assured that it contains required public input and that it was posted on the school website the following week, she told the board at its September public meeting.

Residents, meanwhile, chastised the board and called for them to hold themselves to a higher standard of ethics – comments that seemed to resonate with board members. They delayed approval of a number of expenditures at the meeting so that they could discuss the purchasing and decision-making processes involved.

The board also voted unanimously to reprimand fellow member Zepora Roberts for publicly threatening a reporter last month, calling her behavior “unbecoming of a member of the board.” DeKalb had until Sept. 11 to respond to SACS, which began “a conversation” earlier in the year about internal practices, according to Mark Elgart, president and CEO of SACS and its parent company, AdvancED. The schools association asked DeKalb County representatives to explain processes related to hiring practices; procurement policies, including lucrative bids, selection and implementation of those contracts; the construction bidding process; professional assignments to particular jobs, and the role of the elected school board in setting policy and assuring compliance.

Earlier this year, former School Superintendant Crawford Lewis resigned and he and Pat Reid, former chief operating officer, were later indicted on charges including bribery and theft related to multi-million dollar school construction contracts.

The controversy also raised the interest of state legislators. Last session they required all school districts to have an effective code of ethics with a minimum of safeguards to ensure the integrity of administrative and board operations. The Georgia Board of Education is developing a model code for all school districts.

“I don’t think it’s an absence of an ethics code, it’s an absence of an effective ethics code,” says Representative Mary Margaret Oliver, a Democrat who represents a part of DeKalb County and has called for ethics reform at all levels of government. She said the DeKalb school system’s commitment to a whistleblower hotline is a good first step.

Once they receive DeKalb’s response, SACS will take about a month to review it and determine how to proceed. They could accept the responses and drop the inquiry or decide to conduct a more detailed investigation.