Why Michael Thurmond has a chance to save DeKalb schools

Part showman, part politician, Thurmond shows he is fearless

It was an encounter worthy of a reality TV show. A roomful of parents and homeowners, angry and distrustful and ready to bolt from the disgraced DeKalb County schools. The new superintendent standing before them with one shot to win them over.

Interim DeKalb County superintendent Michael Thurmond gave a command performance in Dunwoody on Sunday. He was upbeat. (“We are turning a fresh new page in DeKalb County schools.) He was reassuring. (“I’m not going to let you down.) He was even a bit of a showman. (“Most of the problems I had absolutely nothing to do with—give me a hand for that!”)

In the audience, Ramona Tyson smiled. Thurmond, a lawyer-politician, is just the person for the job, she says. Tyson herself had a turn as interim superintendent before the board hired Cheryl Atkinson, who left as head of DeKalb schools after eighteen months.

“I love the whole concept of a fresh pair of eyes, which he brings because he comes from the outside,” says Tyson, who remains chief strategy officer at DeKalb schools and has two children in a DeKalb elementary school. “The fact that he’s got a proven record of turning dysfunctional organizations around. I’m really remotivated about the direction the district is headed in.”

What can Thurmond do that Tyson couldn’t? Tyson notes that as a lawyer, Thurmond can figure out how to cut the exorbitant legal fees in DeKalb. “The other thing is that he’s run an organization much larger than DeKalb County school district,” she says of Thurmond’s previous gig as Georgia Labor Commissioner.

Former DeKalb school board member Jim Redovian suggests another difference: Thurmond isn’t afraid of the school board. (Of course, at this point, he doesn’t even have a complete school board.) “I think that was the problem with our last superintendents,” says Redovian. “Everything they did, they were afraid if they got enough board members upset, they would lose their job.”

On Sunday, Thurmond won over Redovian, a hard sell. “I like him a lot,” he says. “I didn’t think I was going to.”