Gov. Nathan Deal doesn’t usually venture into state school board meetings, let alone local ones. But when the Republican intervened in DeKalb’s growing school crisis last year, he also inherited the outcome – good or bad.
About a year ago, shortly after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accrediting agency warned that DeKalb was about to lose accreditation, Deal replaced six of the nine school board members and his office appointed replacements among more than 400 applicants.
On Tuesday, a few minutes after Tuesday’s DeKalb school board meeting had begun, he strode in to hear the SACS chief announce the district was now off probation. And Deal views it as vindication to the first degree.
“Yes, they’ve given me the best validation I could possibly receive,” Deal said. “I don’t claim credit for the validation because it was in their hands to show that they could work together. And they have done so.”
A careful political calculus helped drive and complicate his decision to intervene last year. Deal took considerable criticism by wading into DeKalb after SACS found the local board to be a dysfunctional mess, and residents and outside groups attacked the Republican for wading into a thorny local matter in a Democratic bastion.
Now Deal’s team hopes the move pays dividends. With education at the center of his re-election bid, the resurgence in DeKalb is the type of bipartisan teamwork Deal’s team salivates over.
And DeKalb is the home to his Democratic rival, state Sen. Jason Carter, who met privately with Deal a year ago to help smooth over the governor’s decision. In a statement, Carter gave the credit to Michael Thurmond, the school superintendent and former Democratic labor commissioner.
“The political situation that we were confronted with last year was a complicated one, and I was glad that DeKalb County was able to put our politics aside and come together to work in the best interests of our children and families," Carter said.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, who also represents a chunk of DeKalb, took it a step further by blasting Deal for politicizing the news by appearing at the Stone Mountain event.
"It is disappointing to the people of DeKalb County that Governor Deal tried to turn this announcement into a campaign stop," said Henson. "What made this process successful in DeKalb is that we put politics aside and focused on education."
Thurmond, for his part, was careful not to tick off either side. The superintendent, who dismissed speculation about another run for higher office, said the kudos should go to DeKalb's parents and students.
“We are off probation. The stigma of probation is gone,” Thurmond said. “You can’t cut it. You can’t dilute it. That’s the fact.”