By Greg Gelpi
Only minutes into the first meeting of a new school board and already the board was steeped in controversy.
Tearful, irate and pleading, parents addressed the Clayton County Board of Education, asking the board to review the decisions of Superintendent Barbara Pulliam in rearranging personnel in the school system's special education department.
"Don't assume that because the population of special needs students in Clayton County is small that we're not strong," Linda Cowen, a special needs parent and State Court judge, said with tears in her eyes.
Departmental coordinating and support staff received a letter just before the winter break informing them of their reassignments as classroom teachers, Clayton County Education Association President Sid Chapman said. The reassignments filled positions previously held by long-term substitute teachers, but left many parents questioning the quality of their children's education.
Pulliam defended the action, calling attention to a state Department of Education review faulting the school system for not having enough certified teachers in special education. By moving the personnel, the system was able to fill 19 special education vacancies with certified personnel. The move also helped the system meet standards set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act.
In addressing the needs of many, the school system shouldn't forget the needs of smaller segments of the school population, Betty Nelson, a special needs parent, said.
"Who will speak for our students who cannot speak for themselves?" Nelson asked the board Monday night. "We know that planning without action is futile. However, we know that action without planning is fatal."
A dozen teachers and parents recounted stories of children with special needs and urged the school board to look into the matter.
The system went to such extreme measures as attempting to recruit special education teachers in the Philippines in the spring, but later withdrew those efforts. The efforts were attempts to address the state's citation of the special education department.
The controversy came only moments after the new school board selected its new leadership.
The board unanimously selected Ericka Davis as its new chairwoman. Davis follows Nedra Ware, who was defeated in her bid for re-election.
Newly elected board member Eddie White was chosen as the vice chairman, but not before board member LaToya Walker read a lengthy prepared speech, opposing White and all new members from holding leadership positions. She also voiced opposition to Allen T. Johnson, saying that he focuses too much on the past.
Walker's speech cautioned the board against selecting a new member to be vice chairman and playing the "game of politics," a view supported by Connie Kitchens.
Despite her words against it, White, Wendell "Rod" Johnson, David Ashe, Allen T. Johnson, Yolanda Everett and Davis voted for White.
Kitchens and Walker voted for Walker, and Lois Baines Hunter voted for Allen T. Johnson.