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School controversy dominates 2003

By Greg Gelpi

The new year was only 13 days old when action taken by the chairwoman of the Clayton County Board of Education put into motion moves that rocked the community, caused teachers to flee to other counties, shattered the board and put the system's accreditation in jeopardy.

Amidst vocal opposition from then Superintendent Dan Colwell and a handful of board members, Chairwoman Nedra Ware moved to name a replacement for a vacant board position. It was a move that drew the ire of some board members and, for a short time, cemented her next maneuvers by securing a majority vote.

Ware called for a vote on Carol Kellam, who was named to the board in a 4-3 vote replacing Mark Armstrong who had resigned with two years left in his term.

The agenda was again changed and board member Linda Crummy, then considered a Ware supporter, called for the firing of Colwell. Ware allowed Colwell to speak, but cut him off when he questioned the legality of altering the agenda and breaking board policy.

With Kellam newly appointed, the board voted 5-4 to fire him. The board immediately named William Chavis the interim superintendent.

Colwell fought his firing and outside attorneys, hired by Ware and vice-chairwoman Connie Kitchens, brokered a contract buyout for $232,000.

A legal battle then ensued between Terry Jackson and Lee Sexton, the attorneys hired by Ware and Kitchens, and the school system over non-payment of fees. The attorneys eventually received $53,102 of the $83,843.50 billed to the system for 265.5 hours of work.

System on probation

The Clayton County Grand Jury looked into the school situation, calling witnesses, including board members, and then issued a report. While the language was critical of their actions, it did not recommend any action be taken against the board members.

Following this examination, the future of Clayton County students was put in doubt when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the school system's accrediting agency, placed the system on probation in May.

SACS cited several problems stemming from the school board, including failure to follow its own policies, meddling with the day-to-day operations of the system, the need to conduct a national search and hire a permanent superintendent and the need to clearly state roles and responsibilities of the school board and superintendent.

In October, a SACS review team made a mid-year visit to the system interviewing all of the school board members and several senior administrators.

Although SACS issued the probation in May, the school board never officially met to discuss the probation and the problems cited by SACS until November.

School officials expressed optimism going into the review, but the review team found only "cosmetic" improvements had been made.

The report listed concerns that needed be addressed, namely the hiring of a permanent superintendent and the need for the board to meet and discuss the probation, review and follow its policies and define the roles and responsibilities of the board and superintendent to avoid meddling in the superintendent's business.

SACS will return in May. At that time, SACS will decide to lift the probation, extend the probation or revoke accreditation. If accreditation is revoked, none of the county's graduating high school seniors will be eligible for the state's Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) scholarship program.

Jackson defends Ware

Calls for board members to resign and talks of recalling Ware, Kitchens and Kellam set the backdrop as the local branch of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition conducted a study of the school system.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow/PUSH, defended the three and called for reconciliation between factions within the board and between the board and the public during a rally outside the school administrative offices.

Jackson called efforts to remove the board members an attempt to "sabotage democracy" and called for healing.

Board member Barbara Wells showed up at the rally saying she didn't learn about the press conference until she saw it on television.

Rotating door

The year's controversy sparked turnover on the school board.

Susan Ryan, board member from District 8, resigned her position only months after joining the board citing family as the reason.

A special election was held Sept. 16 to fill the vacant board position. Allen T. Johnson, a retired educator, won the election defeating Natisha Lee and Barbara Halstead.

Johnson was seen as a swing vote, his election ending a streak of 4-4 ties on the board.

Search scrapped

Ware, Kitchens, Kellam and Crummy held meetings to discuss the search for a superintendent.

The four handpicked Lonnie Edwards, an assistant superintendent in DeKalb County, to be the new superintendent.

Several board members opposed Edwards and the way the way the "search" was conducted, claiming they had never seen a complete list of applicants. Applicants had been asked to send applications to a post office box in Hapeville that was in Kitchens name.

Unable to push Edwards through, the board scrapped the effort.

New search begins

Bending to pressure from many individuals and groups, including the Clayton County NAACP and SACS, the board decided to conduct a national search for a superintendent and contracted the Georgia School Boards Association to handle it.

Collecting 41 applications from throughout the nation, including the applicants from the original search, the school board announced its three finalists 17 days after first seeing the applications.

The public had its first look at Barbara Pulliam, the superintendent of the St. Louis Park, Minn., school system; Roy Brooks, an area superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla.; and Stanley Pritchett, an associate superintendent in DeKalb County, at a public forum in December. Pulliam was named the board's choice for superintendent two days later.

The year to come

Pulliam and board attorney Gary Sams are negotiating a contract, and Sams said an agreement could be reached as early as Monday.

The school board is set to meet for a regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the Clayton County Public Schools Administrative Offices at 1058 Smith Ave. in Jonesboro.

Sams said he is "hoping" to bring a contract to the board at that meeting and have Pulliam in place by Feb. 1. She would be the first female superintendent and only the second black superintendent of the predominantly black school system.

Chavis has two contracts with the school system, one as the interim superintendent and another as a senior administrator. When a new superintendent is hired, he will still have a contract to be a senior administrator with the system.