?The clock is ... ticking'

By Bob Paslay

For a complete copy of the SACS letter, see Wednesday's edition of the News Daily.

The Clayton County school district has been put on probation by the international accrediting agency and been given one year to correct significant management problems.

If the changes are not made, the accreditation will be yanked and students will not be eligible for HOPE scholarships, said Mark Elgart, executive director of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In addition, students transferring to other districts may not get credit for Clayton County courses, and teachers and administrators may not be able to find work in other districts.

Elgart called the problems "significant."

"Probation says there is a problem and it is significant and you need to fix it," Elgart said Monday after the seven-page report was received at the school district offices in Jonesboro.

"They have the capacity to fix this," Elgart said. "The question is do they have the will."

Board Chairwoman Nedra Ware told audience members at a packed board meeting Monday night, "It is our intention to work with the SACS committee to correct any problems."

Board member Bob Livingston said, "We are going to have to do it. It is serious."

Audience member after audience member mentioned the report, calling for changes in the way things are done.

The report comes after months of turmoil in the district that began in January when then-Superintendent Dan Colwell was fired and later allowed to resign when his contract was bought out.

The aftermath spawned meetings with packed audiences, calls for recalls of some members, and finger-pointing.

At the crux is the charge that some board members are meddling in the day-to-day operations of the district when they should be making policy and allowing the administration to run the district.

Elgart said the report that followed a May 16 visit stayed focused on this problem and did not address the ouster of Colwell.

"There is a clear separation between the board and the administration" and this is the area which led to the probation, Elgart said.

"There was clear and compelling evidence that they were violating these standards," Elgart said.

The report did not point fingers at any specific board members, but some board members have said that Ware and Vice Chairwoman Connie Kitchens have made routine decisions involving personnel matters and are at the school district offices on a daily basis making decisions.

Detailed records of attorneys' fees for the ouster of Colwell and his negotiated departure indicated board members discussed specific employees and what should be done with them.

Elgart said the district has the right to challenge the report and that if a challenge is made it would be dealt with, possibly by September. But he said a challenge would not lengthen the time the district has to fix the problems.

"The clock is already ticking," he said.

"The way to solve the challenges that are facing the county are up to Clayton County schools," Elgart said. "We identify the problem and it is up to the district to decide how to address the problems and meet our standards.

"The reason they are on probation is the seriousness of those violations," Elgart said. "It means you must fix it, and fix it in an efficient and timely manner."

At least two more onsite visits will be conducted during the coming year to see if the problems are being fixed, Elgart said. "There may be more, if warranted," he said.

No formal reply to the report is needed, and the corrections being made will be observed by inspectors during the visits, Elgart said.

The school district has also been probed by the Clayton County

grand jury, which made recommendations. This report was discounted by Ware and her board supporters, who questioned the jury's right to look into the district operations.

But this latest report is by far the most stinging because the criticism comes with a hammer that would affect all 50,000 students in the district and the 5,800 employees.

SACS accredits 13,000 schools and 1,500 school districts.

"In the past five years we have only had two other situations like this," Elgart said. One was in Georgia and one was in Alabama, and both were able to correct the problems during the year probation.