DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Parents say they have lots of questions after recent hires nearly doubled the DeKalb County School communications department's budget for salaries and benefits. The new top communications officer makes more than the governor.
One of the first things Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green did as the new leader of DeKalb Schools was hire the communications director from Green's previous school district in Kansas City. Eileen Houston-Stewart filled a newly created position in 2016 with a big salary-- nearly $175,000 a year. She is one of nine chief officers in the county school system with that salary.
"I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who has my level of experience," Houston-Stewart told Channel 2's Sophia Choi about her qualifications for her new role. "An important part is you have people that have expertise in those areas that can carry out the work that is expected, not only by the superintendent, but the board and the community stake holders."
Despite her rich background, some parents said it's not money well spent.
"She makes more than the governor?" DeKalb parent Sharon Farmer asked about Houston-Stewart's salary. "I would like to see it spent somewhere else that's going to benefit the children."
"That's ridiculous what about our kids? What about our schools?" Parent Shuntavia Foster said.
Houston-Stewart and four other new positions in the communications department have nearly doubled money spent on salaries to more than $800,000, more than half of the entire communications department's $1.5 million dollar budget proposed for 2017.
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It is also more than the metro's largest school district. Salaries for Gwinnett County's communications department add up to $483 thousand.
"You can't compare department from district to district," Houston-Stewart told Choi. "For example we have a graphics person in our communications department, but in another school district that graphics person may be in the print shop."
Choi attended a January school board meeting where board members questioned high communications department salaries and asked how the new additions would impact students.
"Ultimately, our goal is academic achievement, right?" Asked board member Stan Jester. "You're saying that right now, the best way to spend the next $500,000 is on these positions as opposed to the teachers and counselors and the school house employees?"
"A bachelor's degree, at this kind of salary," board member Vickie Turner noted positions requiring Ph.D.s and law degrees are paid less than some of the new communications positions. "It just seems like there is some kind of a disparity there."
"I'd like to see the whole thing be audited," school board member Dr. Joyce Morley declared in the meeting. "I'd like to see the whole thing come together and look at the necessity, that we don't just put something there for the sake of putting it there."
Green told Choi the school system did away with its communications department in 2010, during the recession. He said the school system is now rebuilding the department back to what it was before the economic downturn.
"I'd heard that there were concerns, and I come to the meeting prepared to address those concerns," Green said.
Green also said building up the communications department is part of the district's strategic plan, and something board asked for when they hired him in 2015.
He also told Choi the board approved Houston-Stewart's position, and other communications department personnel additions, in a December 2015 executive session. Green said salaries are based on position and set by the district. Salaries are evaluated every five years, and the next evaluation will be in 2018.
"I just wanted to make sure [new hires] had the experience, and we got the best and the brightest to fit in the position," Green said.
Some parents, like Allyson Gevertz, said she has seen this new communications department making positive changes something parents desperately wanted.
"All of us were very vocal with the superintendent about shaking things up. We want transparency, we want better communication," Gervertz said.
Houston-Stewart said her new-and-improved department has won numerous awards and accolades from parents for beefing up the district's website, and improving parent outreach.
While confidant about the department's changes, Green wanted parents to know there is more progress to come
"We made an investment, and we're waiting for a return on that investment," Green said.