Officials with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools announced Tuesday the DeKalb County School District is no longer on probation, which prompted a standing ovation from a packed meeting of the local school board. The sprawling metro Atlanta school district serves nearly 100,000 students with about 14,000 employees.
"We were in chaos," said schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond, who was appointed after the district was placed on probation and was the third superintendent in three years. "It was a very frightening experience. We were close to collapse. But I never had any doubt that we would move forward and be successful."
Gov. Nathan Deal, who was at the board meeting, said he was surprised at how fast the school district had improved in the year since he suspended and then removed six of nine school board members over the accreditation concerns. He later appointed their replacements.
"Very simply, you have come a long way in a year's time," Deal told the school board. "You have shown my actions and my confidence in you to be well placed."
The accrediting association put the district on probation in December 2012, citing problems with board governance and fiscal mismanagement. A loss of accreditation could have affected a student's ability to gain college admission and financial aid, with broader economic implications.
Surrounded by some of the state's top school districts, DeKalb County as a whole faced the possibility of families selling their homes and leaving for better schools elsewhere, driving down real estate prices.
All those issues factored into Deal's decision to remove the elected school board members, an action that was later challenged in court and ultimately upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court last year.
"A year ago, we found a school system in significant turmoil," said Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, the parent company of the accrediting association. "A year ago this system was trending toward failing to meet the needs of its students, failing to meet the expectations of its community and failing to meet the requirements for accreditation."
In his presentation, Elgart noted the significant progress that has been made by the district and the school board but warned that officials cannot become complacent. The district remains on "warned" status and will continue to face regular reviews by the accrediting association.
"The problems that we revealed and that you revealed were not created overnight, nor will they be removed overnight," Elgart said. "You should be commended for the progress to date."
Willie Pringle has a daughter who is a senior at an area high school. He attended Tuesday's meeting and said there was reason for hope after a troubling few years.
"But we still got a long way to go," Pringle said. "We still have a lot of problems."
State Sen. Jason Carter, a Democrat who represents a portion of DeKalb County and a candidate for governor, called Tuesday's decision a victory for students and their families.
"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 in a statement.
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