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SACS visits Clayton schools

By Greg Gelpi

The future of Clayton County schools and its 50,642 students hangs in the balance as the accrediting body, which had placed the school system on probation, returns for another visit.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools will interview members of the Clayton County Board of Education and senior officials of the school district today to monitor the district's progress since its last visit.

"If you put a system on probation, there are areas that they obviously want you to address," Assistant Superintendent Bill Horton said.

During its last visit in May, SACS placed the county's school system on probation, detailing seven areas that needed improvement. All of the areas involved the board's antics and inability to work together for the benefit of its students.

"The board has been working to address these specific areas," Horton said, noting that the board has adequately reconciled six of the areas, but still has concern over one area.

SACS mandated the board institute a monitor to oversee its progress in complying with the changes required by SACS, Horton said. The board appointed its attorney Gary Sams to serve in this capacity, but didn't know if this fulfilled the requirement.

"That is the only area that we aren't sure we are in compliance of," Horton said. "What I think is not important. It's what SACS thinks."

The school board addressed the other six areas in a number of ways. Topping the list of SACS concerns was the way in which the board attempted to advertise for and hire a new school superintendent.

Board members, for instance, illegally attempted to hire a superintendent by conducting business in private, a violation of open meetings law.

Since the May visit, board members have received training and launched a national search in accordance with SACS requests.

"(The bickering is) bad because it's going to affect the students in some way," Alandi Hill, a Clayton resident, said. "It's going to trickle down."

Monday, the heavily divided board added Allen T. Johnson, who was elected recently during a special election. Johnson could be the swing vote in what had been a string of 4-4 ties.

Probation is a warning, Horton explained.

"We are still a fully accredited system," he said.

If the school board fails to correct its ways, though, SACS could remove the accreditation of the school system, which would directly impact the future of the county's students, Horton said.

Seniors graduating from a non-accredited high school are not eligible for the state's HOPE scholarship program.

Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) has awarded more than $1.5 billion in financial aid to about 600,000 students since it began in 1993, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission.

No action will be taken during Wednesday's visit. SACS will return in the spring at which time action will be taken regarding the system's probationary status.