Candidate Q&A: DeKalb County School Board District 6

Carol Calvert (l) and Lisa Cottrell handle the voter registration table during a ‘Get out the Vote’ rally hosted by the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice at the ArtLot in Avondale Estates on September 19, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Decaturish.com sent a Q&A to all candidates running for DeKalb County School Board. Here are the responses of the candidates running for District 6 in the May 24 election. Early voting starts May 2. To see your sample ballot, visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter Page by clicking here. The answers have not been edited. Please note: the Q&As were submitted before the School Board Fired Superintendent Cheryl Watson Harris.  All our elections coverage can be found at Decaturishvotes.com 

Editor’s note: There are three candidates in this race, Diijon “Twin” Dacosta (the incumbent), Janet Hughes and Venola Mason. Decaturish sent messages and the questionnaire to Hughes and Mason. They did not respond. 

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Diijon DaCosta, Sr.

Candidate name: Diijon DaCosta, Sr.

Candidate website: https://linktr.ee/DaCostaDeKalb

What is your occupation? Vice Chair, DeKalb Board of Education

What neighborhood do you call home? Stone Mountain, GA

Why are you running for this position? I am running for re-election because I believe in the future of the DCSD and our scholars. As a product of DCSD education, a life-long resident, and a parent advocate raising my children here, I am a witness to the barriers inhibiting our progress.

If elected, what are your top two or three priorities? My priority is to continue to improve the academic parity at our schools, ensure that all of our scholars have access to quality education, and assist in making DCSD even more exceptional.

How would you work to accomplish your priorities if elected? DeKalb County School District is working to adapt to our growing and more diversified populations, shifts in the economy, and annexation of surrounding communities. Therefore, I will continue to advocate for more programs, initiatives, and policies that support dismantling institutional racism in education and drive the future potential of ALL students. This includes appropriate allocation of resources to fund early and alternative education programs: Propose expansion of access to quality instructional programming and co-curricular activities. Use correlations between student economics and low academic performance to facilitate social readiness measures for early learning scholars. Lead the wave of improving communication between families and board members while distributing information and opportunities and managing roadblocks affecting our students. Collaboratively work with stakeholders to ensure that we make informed decisions to support student success, equity, and access.

What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s greatest strength? DeKalb County School District’s greatest strength is diversity. As Georgia’s third-largest school system, we serve over 93,000 students, 140+ schools and centers, and 15,500 employees, including 6,600 teachers. Students and parents speak over 185+ languages and represent over 155+ nations. As a result of DeKalb’s diversity, our students and staff learn to master the art of working in cross-functional teams. In recent years, this skill has become necessary in education, government, and industry-based opportunities due to the expansion of many institutions into a global marketplace.

What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s biggest weakness? DCSD has supported education in our community since the late 19th century and some of our current schools were established as early as the mid-1950’s. DeKalb County School District has 170 facilities; 76 elementary, 19 middle schools, and 22 high schools. DCSD sites and facilities include administrative offices, stadiums, education programs, and charter schools. With a history so rich in our community and the exponential advancement of technology, it is inevitable that some DeKalb facilities may be deemed out-dated and in need of 21st century modernization.

How would you address the school district’s biggest weakness? In 2016, the Board of Education identified its facilities as a weakness, then worked to pass an ESPLOST referendum to receive funds that would support projects identified by the “Building S.P.A.C.E.S.” Initiative.  It determined how, where, and why future resources should be dedicated to the improvement and modernization of our buildings and infrastructure in support of the District’s vision “to inspire our community of learners to achieve educational excellence.” Following this, in 2021, we successfully passed another referendum to continue the investment of over $700 million into the buildings and infrastructure of our rapidly growing district.

What is your opinion of the current superintendent? Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris is a strong instructional leader who believes “that by providing empowering experiences to all scholars, while removing barriers, all scholars will reach their preferred future.” She has worked diligently to meet district expectations and as a result, has championed several major accomplishments within her first year of service to the district. Namely, DCSD was accepted into the League of Innovative Schools by Digital Promise, has won the Student Support Team Association for Georgia Educators (SSTAGE) “Star Award for Promising Practices,” and was identified as a learning residency site by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, providing the opportunity to host its first Doctoral fellow, among other accomplishments. The district looks forward to working with the Superintendent as we continually build upon these successes and strengthen future outcomes for all students.

What is your opinion of the school district’s latest comprehensive master plan? The DeKalb County School District Comprehensive Master Plan (CMP)addresses many district concerns ranging from standard to uncommon issues. The CMP seeks to help the district outline the functionality of all facilities and helps categorize them into manageable clusters for revitalization. Not only does the proposal identify which facilities would benefit most from new construction, but also offers alternatives, including consolidation, rebalancing feeder patterns, and K-8 conversions to economically address these issues. Most notably, the CMP offers a plan of optimal efficiency by prioritizing each project and providing an estimated timeline of completion. Ideally, the DCSD would like to do more and with greater expediency for our scholars. However, the detailed 2022 CMP, in conjunction with the recent passing of the referendum to receive ESPLOST funds and the accountability of the DeKalb School Board, are the best combination to maximize facility maintenance and sustainability.

What is your opinion of the decision to remove Druid Hills High School from the district’s facilities renovation project list? Druid Hills High School is a unique situation. It has been maintained by the DeKalb County School District for nearly 100 years, through the preservation or identification of alternatives outlined in the CMP process for new construction. With 130+ facilities under the obligation for financial maintenance and nearly half receiving a facility condition assessment (FCA) score of less than 70%, the decision was made to table the agenda item for further consideration from staff.

Do you support creating early childhood learning centers in every region in the DeKalb County School District? Yes

What is your opinion of how the school district has handled the COVID-19 pandemic? DeKalb County School District aided in the closing and reopening of schools at the onset of the pandemic, ensuring adequate PPE was available to all staff, teachers, and scholars. We provided the necessary equipment for remote learning and teleworking for all students and employees. Free meals were provided each day throughout the week to supplement our communities who suffer from food insecurity and to maintain our workforce. Upon school reentry, we also provided a remote option for parents who were not comfortable with their child returning to in-person instruction. In addition, the district approved the continued protection of all district employees through a hiring freeze intended to 1) preserve the DeKalb County School District’s emergency fund balance and 2) avoid any reductions in force (RIF) to staff.

What is your opinion of the school district selecting Rudy Crew as a finalist for superintendent then deciding against hiring him? Our job as a Board and District is to be as transparent as possible while balancing our obligation to protect privacy in both the student and personnel context (as mandated by The Federal Privacy Act of 1974). These obligations restrict our ability to make public comments regarding the details and opinions of sensitive issues. Consequently, our district was charged with making the strongest possible leadership choice for the position of its acting chief executive officer, which is the Superintendent. Our CEO oversees an annual budget in excess of $2 billion dollars, serves over 93,000 students, and employs over 15,500 individuals. Taxpayers’ trust, students’ educational futures, and employees’ livelihoods were contingent upon that decision. We recognized both the privilege and burden of that task and proceeded forth in a thoughtful, thorough, meaningful, and non-discriminatory manner.

How would you work to avoid litigation against the school district and control spending on legal fees? It is important that we spend tax dollars on educating our children, first and foremost.  I believe that administrative and legal expenses, on the other hand, should be kept to a minimum. While we cannot control outside forces, we can focus on educating our employees, implementing best practices, communicating with stakeholders, and making informed and transparent choices to reduce the district’s legal exposure.  To that effect, I have worked hard on these issues. Since first elected to the DeKalb Board of Education, we have reduced the number of law firms from 5 down to 2, and legal fees are down significantly.

What should the school district’s spending priorities be? The district has focused on student instruction and safety under my leadership and will continue to do so upon my re-election. Not only is it our state mandate, but it is also our mission to provide adequate and fair education to all students in the DeKalb County School District. As a Board member, it is my responsibility to oversee and legislate the resources that provide students with instructional support & materials, and scholastic opportunities to be successful. Safety is prioritized in tandem to instruction because data indicates that welfare directly impacts learning outcomes and provides a common place for connectivity, learning and growth.

What is your opinion of DCSD’s management of its finances, and how would you improve it? In my opinion, the DeKalb County School District’s financial management system has been a continuous improvement over the past three years. Under the Board’s guidance, we safeguarded taxpayers’ dollars by maintaining a healthy fund balance of 10% of the operating budget, approved positions, and tools to strengthen our reporting processes based on external mandates and internal efficiency. The Board of Education championed the recommendation that the Audit Committee be a standing committee of the Board, including community volunteers. To sustain fiduciary integrity, we proposed that the Audit Committee would review the financial operations of the DeKalb County School District and provide periodic reports to the Board of Education regarding financial reporting processes, audits, internal controls, fraud, waste, abuse inquires, and compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. As the audit Committee Chair, it is my duty to execute these mandates.

What would you do to improve teacher and staff morale and retention in the school district? Unfortunately, morale and retention can be affected by concerns beyond the control of the district including economics, and recently, a global pandemic. The district can, however, offset the effects of low morale and retention by offering an indirect approach to address these issues. For example, during my tenure, DCSD approved over $80 million in employee retention incentives addressing wellness, livable wage realignment, new hire referrals, COVID-19 vaccination, and bus driver wage increases. In addition, DCSD has offered a New Hire Bonus of up to $3500.00. We offer professional development, the exemplary-rated Teacher Alternative Prep Program (TAPP), and approved over $2000 supplements. What’s most important is that we allow our educators and staff members to lead the conversation in identifying what initiatives would influence their decision to enthusiastically renew their contracts through retirement.

Why should teachers work DeKalb County Schools instead of other districts? DeKalb County School District, unlike any other district in metro Atlanta, provides educators with an opportunity to teach and guide the most diverse student population. Such an opportunity, combined with employee incentives, professional development, and employee support, proves to result in DCSD teachers working in an environment that fosters growth and advancement. While all districts are faced with specific challenges, we offer the means for all educators to participate and benefit from our collective efforts to successfully prepare students for the challenges of the 21st-century.

If you are elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner? How would you work to promote ethics and transparency in government? Yes. I will maintain an open-door policy regarding public information, continue utilizing all communication and social media platforms to inform the public on what’s happening in our District and remain visible and reachable.

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