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Chamber attacks local school board

By Justin Reedy

The Clayton County Chamber of Commerce publicly attacked the county Board of Education on Thursday, saying the board's actions are hurting the business community and threaten the county's quality of life.

The chamber also called for the resignations of four key school board members at the center of the controversy that has swirled around Clayton County's Board of Education since the ouster of the county school superintendent in January.

An overwhelming 98 percent of Clayton chamber members that answered an e-mail poll this week agreed to take a stand against the school board's controversial actions. At a press conference Thursday afternoon, chamber President and CEO Shane Moody issued a statement asking board Chairwoman Nedra Ware, Vice Chairwoman Connie Kitchens and board members Carol Kellam and LaToya Walker to resign.

"We have sat back and waited long enough for this problem to solve itself," Moody said. "It is (those four members') actions that have caused this upheaval in productive board meetings and quality education for our children. If they do not resign, we encourage the business owners and citizens of those board members' respective districts to sponsor petitions for those board members' recall."

The board's divisiveness and the controversy surrounding the county school system have started to affect the business community, Moody said, by scaring off businesses looking to invest here. The situation has grown worse, he added, since the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the county's accrediting agency, put the school system on probation.

At least two businesses looking to relocate or expand here have backed away from the county, Moody said, after hearing the controversy with the school system surfaced. That could result in the loss of a $50 million investment and hundreds of jobs, he said.

"We are losing business relocations and expansions on a daily basis because of the threat of losing accreditation," Moody said. "No business will be part of a community with a crumbling public school system. (Losing those businesses) takes jobs and money out of our county, and ultimately decays our quality of life."

The chamber statement also called for the board to implement the changes recommended by both the Clayton County Grand Jury report and the report issued earlier this year by SACS, as well as to conduct a national search for a new superintendent. Dr. William Chavis has been serving as interim superintendent since the firing of Dan Colwell earlier this year.

In addition to the chamber's joint statement issued by Moody, members of the organization's board of directors and individual chamber members became vocal Thursday in their opposition of the school board's actions.

Chamber board member Geoff Fulton of the accounting firm D.J. Fulton, CPA, was a product of the Clayton County school system but isn't as proud of that as he used to be.

"I used to tell people with pride that I graduated from Jonesboro High School," Fulton said. "Now it's embarrassing to say I graduated from Clayton County schools."

Dr. Kirk Smick, chairman of the Clayton Eye Center, has encountered a similar problem in dealing with people from around metro Atlanta.

"The actions of the school board are extremely negative to Clayton County and my friends from Atlanta say we are the laughing stock of the metropolitan area," Smick said in an e-mail responding to the chamber poll. "This is a low point in our county history for (the 25 years) I have lived here."

Hugh Kinney, president of the Southern Bonded Warehouse, a local cargo company, has also been thoroughly displeased with the school board's actions.

"We should always strive to do the right thing in our relationships with other companies and institutions," Kinney wrote in an e-mail to the chamber staff. "The Board of Education should provide a positive model for the children entrusted to their care. To do otherwise is criminal and those responsible should be dealt with accordingly."

In addition discouraging businesses from expanding or relocating here, business people say controversy in the local school system can cause local residents and businesses to move out of the county n which chamber members say is happening in this situation.

Chamber board member Jim Corbin, the owner of Corbin Comfort Systems, has seen an exodus by his customers to neighboring Henry County.

"We're in the service business, and our customers are moving out of the county," Corbin explained. "We have a larger presence in Henry County now, not just because of the new customers who have moved there, but also because of our existing customers from Clayton County moving there."

Other chamber members have noticed the same thing among both customers and neighbors.

"Our customer base has migrated to Fayette and Henry counties," Fulton said. "I grew up here, and it makes me sad."

"Many of my neighbors and friends are all wanting to sell their homes and leave Clayton County for reasons like this," Smick added.

For that and many other reasons, Moody said, it was important for the chamber to take a stand on this issue.

"Until Ware, Kitchens, Kellam and Walker want to work with the other board members, they not only damage the high school careers of our students, they damage the entire lives that lie ahead of these students," Moody said. "They damage the efforts of businesses and economic development organizations such as the Chamber. And, ultimately, they destroy the quality of life for every business and citizen of Clayton County."