Hayward Westcott hands over the microphone to parent Adrienne Bashuk during the “education forum” at Kingswood United Methodist Church in Dunwoody on March 3.

Hundreds of Dunwoody parents filled a church auditorium one recent Sunday afternoon to discuss how best to deal with the issues facing the county’s schools.

“The way it is now doesn’t work,” parent Lindsay Ballow said after the gathering at Kingswood United Methodist Church in Dunwoody. “We have to do something.”

DeKalb school officials confront a number of problems, including the loss of the system’s accreditation.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting agency generally called SACS, criticized the board for the way it runs the system and put the system on probation. Parents fear that if SACS eventually revokes the system’s accreditation, the action could have an effect on DeKalb high school graduates applying to out-of-state colleges.

Gov. Nathan Deal has said he would remove six of DeKalb’s nine school board members because of the accreditation problems. The board took the state to court to challenge the law allowing the removal, but on March 4 a federal judge cleared the way for Deal to officially remove the six and replace them while the lawsuit moves forward through the courts, according to reports.

A new organization called Dunwoody Parents Concerned About Quality Education staged the March 3 meeting at Kingswood. Parents who started the group said they plan for it to be a nonprofit that will gather and share information about how to improve the schools. They have established a website at www.dunwoodyparents.org. and a Facebook page.

“Why do we exist? To take care of our children,” Allegra Johnson, president of the group, said after the meeting.

More than 275 people attended the Kingswood meeting, including members of Dunwoody City Council, state lawmakers, and DeKalb school board member Nancy Jester, who represents Dunwoody, and who received a standing ovation from the crowd. Later in the week, on March 5, Jester announced she was resigning from the board rather than be part of the lawsuit contesting her removal by the governor.

Dunwoody City Councilman Terry Nall told the group that the school district’s troubles filtered into other areas. “This goes well beyond just the education of kids,” Nall said. “It goes into economic development, not just in Dunwoody, but in DeKalb and in Georgia. It goes to our property values.”

State Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican, told the group that state officials are working to keep the DeKalb school district from losing its accreditation.

“I think the steps are being taken,” Millar said. “I think we’re doing the right things at this point. … I am comfortable that if the courts do not mess this up, we are not going to lose accreditation.”

Still, during the meeting, parents were presented a variety of proposals for ways to attack the system’s problems, ranging from asking another accrediting agency to accredit Dunwoody High School, to creating a local charter school system, to starting a new, independent school system in Dunwoody or in several communities in north metro Atlanta.

Rep. Tom Taylor, a Dunwoody Republican, has introduced legislation to call for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment to allow creation of new school systems in certain cities, including Dunwoody.

Taylor told the crowd the legislation would allow new school systems in cities created in 2005 or later. That means his bill would apply to Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Milton, Peachtree Corners and Chattahoochee Hills. The bill also would allow cities to go in together to start school systems. The bill says contiguous cities also could join in.

Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis said residents of that city might be willing to try to start their own school system in the future. “I hear a lot of interest in that,” he said. “I think the vast majority of residents of Brookhaven would be interested in having their own school system, if we could pay for it. Obviously, it’s not something for this year, but we’re keeping up with the issue.”

State Rep. Tom Taylor speaks to the crowd. The forum was sponsored by the Dunwoody Parents Concerned About Quality Education, a nonprofit recently formed to gather and share information about improving schools.

Taylor said the proposal faces long odds in the Legislature. “There are a lot of obstacles to this,” he said. “A state constitutional amendment is difficult by design.”

He said he had limited the start of new school systems to recently created cities in hopes of improving the proposal’s chances. “If you hold this statewide, it’s dead on arrival,” he said. “If you limit it, there’s an opportunity.”

Taylor said his proposal would require at least two years in the Legislature, so the earliest it could be voted on by the public would be in November of 2014. “This will not be in place by the next school year,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”

Later that evening, the Dunwoody Homeowners Association board voted unanimously to endorse Taylor’s bill and to ask Dunwoody City Council to pay for the feasibility study it requires. The DHA also gave $5,000 to the Dunwoody Parents group, DHA Secretary Bill Grossman said.

Several parents at the meeting said they liked the idea of separating Dunwoody’s schools from the county system.

“I would like to see more local control,” said Gil Hearn, one of the parents who organized the Dunwoody Parents group. “I think the system has proved itself to be too large to meet the needs of all the students.”

Hearn, who said he has two children attending Dunwoody elementary schools and two more headed there, told the crowd that the new group offered “an excellent return on investment – especially compared to the private school tuition.”

Lindsay Ballow agreed the DeKalb district was too big. “It’s a billion-dollar corporation and the people on the board should be the caliber of people on the board of a billion-dollar corporation,” said Ballow, who has a child at Vanderlyn Elementary School.

After the meeting concluded, parent Susan Friedenberg said she thought it had proved helpful.

“It got people to think more and, hopefully, be more involved,” she said.

Joe Earle

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.

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