SACS: ?Significant challenges' remain

By Greg Gelpi

The Clayton County School Board of Education doesn't have a clue.

That is according to a report filed by a team of investigators sent by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to interview top school officials.

SACS, the accrediting agency that placed the Clayton County school system on probation six months ago, issued an oral report after meeting with school officials Wednesday.

"(The board members) still don't have a comprehensive understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the board or the roles and responsibilities of the superintendent," said Mark Elgart, executive director of the SACS Commission for Secondary and Elementary Schools.

After its initial visit, SACS issued a report detailing the problems with the school system and placed it on probation. The school board has yet to formally meet to discuss the report, he said.

"The team did indicate that there had been limited progress at the school," Elgart said, but "significant challenges" remain for the board to meet.

School administrators entered the evaluation with optimism, but the mood changed overnight as the SACS team left.

Assistant Superintendent Bill Horton expressed hope prior to the visit, but didn't want to comment on the system's chances of being taken off probation until a written report is filed.

"It always looks different when you're an evaluator," he said. "To know exactly what the system is doing you have to be here a good bit, and they did interview people who have been here a good bit."

The board has discussed the SACS report, Horton said, contesting the notion that the board hadn't.

"There have been informal discussions between one or two board members with (Interim Superintendent Dr. William Chavis) to discuss the SACS report," Horton said.

Specifically, the board must formally meet to discuss the initial SACS report, which placed the county on probation, and stabilize the school district's administration by appointing a superintendent to comply with SACS, Elgart said.

"From some respects, they have done what we have expected," Elgart said. "In other respects, they still have work to do."

A formal written report on the team's visit will be written in two weeks, he said.

"More than a little has been done," newly elected board member Allen T. Johnson said.

Johnson was elected in a special election to the board, which had endured a streak of 4-4 decisions before his joining.

He told the visiting team that the divisive atmosphere is changing for the better, he said, but admits a superintendent needs to be hired and work meetings need to be held.

"That could be true," Johnson said of the board's reported lack of knowledge. "That has been part of the problem all along."

"That's the kind of thing the board needs to have workshops on," he said, adding that none are scheduled.

The school board did attend retreats, but has yet to sit down and directly address the concerns of SACS, Elgart said.

"It's a matter of fact that all these things can be corrected," Johnson said.

It's a matter of the SACS report, though, that very little has.

"I think they have come a long way from the days of what was called micromanaging," Horton said, adding that he has confidence in the evaluators.

SACS issued a report, outlining seven areas for the board to address following extensive bickering and several antics, including attempting to hire a new superintendent without performing a required national search.

Breaking open meetings laws, the board tried to hire a superintendent with some board members unaware of the complete list of candidates.

The school system could lose its accreditation in the spring if they have yet to comply with the recommendations of SACS.

If this happens, the county's 50,642 students would no longer be eligible for the state's Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally scholarship program. The program has awarded $1.5 billion in scholarships to about 600,000 Georgia residents since it began in 1993.