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Michael Thurmond passes on race for state school superintendent

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Michael Thurmond, the Dekalb County school superintendent, listens to parents at Fernbank Elementary School during a presentation earlier this month. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

Michael Thurmond, the Dekalb County school superintendent credited with calming a volatile educational system, on Monday said he intends to pass on the chance to run as a Democratic candidate for state school superintendent.

Thurmond cited the fragility of his school system’s progress, a burgeoning, racially divisive fight over school board redistricting that needs to be headed off, and the declining influence of the statewide post.

Said Thurmond in a telephone interview:

“I’m not going to run, and let me tell you why. Real change and progress, if it is to exist in public education, will have to come at the local level.

“No disrespect to the current school superintendent or the person who will succeed him, but that job and its influence has been diminished over the years – budgetarily and otherwise.

“If I am interested in improving the quality of public education in Georgia, the individuals who will play the most critical role in this are local school superintendents. Not state superintendents.

“I miss state politics. I really miss it. I was in state politics for 20 years, in one form or another. And this election cycle provides a great political opportunity. But some things are more important than politics.”

Qualifying for the race is only a week away. While several Republicans have announced campaigns to replace state School Superintendent John Barge, who is running for governor, Thurmond’s decision leaves state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan of Austell as the only Democrat.

Thurmond, a former state labor commissioner, was in a private law practice last year when he was appointed to the DeKalb job last year — part of an upheaval caused when the school system’s accreditation firm placed it on probation. Six of nine school board members were ousted and replaced by Gov. Nathan Deal.

At a meeting of the DeKalb County legislative delegation at the state Capitol this afternoon, Thurmond said he intended to ask the delegation to put off, for this election year, an effort to shrink the school board from nine to seven members, and redraw district lines.

“There’s a huge controversy brewing over the reapportionment of the school district lines in DeKalb. As always, it’s north versus south, black versus white. That’s the context of all of this,” Thurmond said.

The school superintendent wants the legislation sponsored by state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, delayed at least until 2015. But he’s worried that the delegation is riven by the same racial polarization that threatens the school system.

“Unless more rational minds intervene, unless we can get some adults in the room, we’re going to return and regress to the same racially charged, confrontational environment that existed a year ago. We’re going to lose all the progress that we’ve gained, and could very well end up on probation again,” Thurmond said.

On the school board and in the county as a whole, he said, the crux of the problem is “the inability or unwillingness to share power in this county.”

“I’ll sacrifice my political agenda,” Thurmond said just before he met with state lawmakers. “But they’re going to have to help me.”

One more thing: When Thurmond’s name was floated earlier this month, there was talk that he would skip the race, because it would mean a pay cut. Larger school systems commonly pay their CEOs more than the head of the state educational bureaucracy. But Thurmond said a pay cut didn’t enter into his decision. He’d already taken one last year, when he took his DeKalb job.

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