Georgia ReportNews

Michael Thurmond Takes on His Biggest Job Yet

Earlier this year, Michael Thurmond got a phone call 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. 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 state labor commissioner, an Athens native, gave up his position with a 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.”

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 somewhat.  

Even with all the turmoil, 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? 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 hanging over the system.  

“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 his political skills from people like House speaker Tom Murphy and former governor Zell Miller. While he was a member of the Georgia House in 1990, Thurmond was caught 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?”

Miller finally agreed to a sales tax compromise. 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.”