As Michael Thurmond tells the story, he got a phone call one day from an attorney for the DeKalb County school board asking if he would be interested in the job of school superintendent.
The pay was good but the offer wasn’t exactly a dream job.
The DeKalb system was facing the loss of accreditation and the governor wanted to suspend the school board members. The system was mired in a financial crisis. Several former administrators were facing trial on racketeering charges.
After promising to get back with the attorney, Thurmond called his wife, Zola, and told her about the job offer.
“She said, ‘you’re crazy,’” Thurmond recounted. “And 30 minutes later they called back and I said, ‘sure.’”
The former legislator and state labor commissioner gave up a position with a respected law firm to try to pull Georgia’s third-largest school system away from the cliff it was about to go over.
“I’m one of those guys who runs toward a problem instead of away from it,” Thurmond said in explaining why he took the ultimate in thankless jobs. “The state of Georgia and DeKalb County could not afford to allow this public school system to fail. This is too important to Metro Atlanta and the state of Georgia.”
Today, Thurmond believes he can see some progress.
“I inherited a deficit of $14.7 million,” he said. “They had a revenue shortfall of about $70-plus million. As of today, we’ve eliminated the deficit, our budget is currently balanced and we have approximately $10 million in the rainy day fund.”
Gov. Nathan Deal did remove most of the school board members, but their replacements have calmed things down. The indicted former administrators were convicted and sentenced on the criminal charges.
Even with all the turmoil he’s dealt with, Thurmond says the job has been a great experience.
“It’s been very educational for me, no pun intended,” he said. “The good thing is, I’m surrounded by educators who love to teach, so anything I don’t know, I have very close to me 14,000 people who love to teach.”
“The critical issue of the 21st century is, how do we improve performance and outcome among our public schools, particularly for economically disadvantaged students?” Thurmond said. “It’s one thing to theorize and pontificate, but at the end of the day, you have to engage the challenge at a very fundamental level.”
The next big challenge is dealing with the threatened loss of accreditation that still hangs over the system. Officials of the SACS accrediting agency recently visited DeKalb and will issue their next report in January.
“We’re working mightily to lift the district off probation, because that’s the lifeblood of any educational system,” Thurmond said.
Thurmond has never been a school teacher or administrator, but he learned valuable political skills from such masters as legendary House speaker Tom Murphy and former governor Zell Miller.
While he was a member of the Georgia House in 1990, Thurmond got caught up in the middle of a fight between Murphy and Miller over a bill to raise the state sales tax.
Miller insisted on exempting fresh foods, but not processed foods, from the increased sales tax. During the debate over the measure, Thurmond made a memorable floor speech in which he pulled a lobster and a can of sardines out of a grocery bag.
“Is the poor man going to buy this? Or this?” Thurmond said as he held up the lobster and the can of sardines. “Are we going to be satisfied with exempting the lobster and taxing the poor man on his sardines?”
In the end, Miller agreed to a compromise on the sales tax increase. He later hired Thurmond to run the state’s child welfare agency.
“On the day I took this job (with DeKalb County), he sent me a handwritten letter that said, ‘You and that damn lobster,’” Thurmond laughed. “To this day, he still talks about that lobster.”
There are still some major problems to work through as the school board and the administration try to pull the DeKalb system out of its deep hole.
“It’s a work in progress,” Thurmond said. “There are 100,000 students and this is a complex operation. You always try to do what’s in the best interests of all our students.”