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Parents, board members speak out on SACS

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

There was no shortage of opinions on Monday night concerning a possible investigation of the Clayton County school system by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The Board of Education's meeting provided parents with their first opportunity to publicly address board members about the possibility of the school system being put on probation, by the district's accrediting agency, for the second time in less than five years.

Mark Elgart, president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (CASI), told the Clayton News Daily on Nov. 20, that an investigation of Clayton County's Board of Education was "highly likely."

On Monday night, five members of the community, Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan and board member, Sandra Scott, publicly spoke out on the matter. Scott is one of two board members at the center of SACS' inquiries into the school system. Norreese Haynes is the other.

"As a whole, this board has once again become an embarrassment to the community," said Bob Boyer, father of a senior at Jonesboro High School, during the public comments session. "Just the suggestion that our accreditation is being threatened is grounds for resignations to be tendered."

The board will hold a called meeting at 6:30 p.m., on Thursday, to further address the possible investigation. The meeting will take place at the Central Administration Complex, 1058 Fifth Ave., Jonesboro.

Duncan took a few moments to speak to parents about the issue. She mainly read a previously released school system statement, which says the system's academic programs are not being investigated. She added, though: "We are making sure every effort is being made to ensure your child receives a quality education in Clayton County schools."

Rod Johnson, the vice chairman of the Board of Education, was one of several people asking for an investigation, according to SACS-related documents, obtained from the school system through an open records request.

Johnson requested that SACS investigate Haynes' involvement in the selection process for an alternative education provider for the school system. According to Johnson's request to SACS, and a previous letter sent to the state attorney general's office, Haynes allegedly tried to influence the selection process so Nashville-based Community Education Partners would be selected as the alternative-education provider.

Three letters from people connected to Morrow High School's athletic department, including former head football coach, Kennedy Holt, asked SACS to investigate Scott. The letters allege that Scott used her position as a board member to get Holt fired from his job, because she didn't like the way they treated her son, who was on Morrow's varsity football team.

Scott took a brief point of personal privilege during Monday's meeting to denounce the allegations against her. "I have come under scrutiny, and I don't like it," she said. "I did not come on this board with a political agenda."

Scott then attempted to shift the blame for potential problems with SACS on Johnson, by pointing out that he sent a request to the agency, asking for an investigation. "I did request e-mails of board members," she continued. "I did not take those e-mails to SACS. I did not call SACS, asking for an investigation. Why would I, as a board member, call SACS to come in and investigate the school system, when I knew what would come of it?"

Johnson's request for an investigation garnered both criticism, and support from members of the community, during the meeting, though.

"You have our school system to look out for," said Jessie Goree during the public comments section of the meeting. What child asked you to call SACS? You people need to stop acting like children. Stop telling on each other. If you have personal disagreements, you need to take care of them in executive session," she added.

Becky Stewart, a parent of a Jonesboro High School student, saw it differently, though. "I would rather have a member of this school board report us, rather than someone else doing it so we end up looking like we have something to hide," she said.

Other members of the community chose to address what they feel is a larger problem with the board of education. "The specter of another investigation by our accrediting agency now hangs as a dark cloud over this system," said Larry O'Keeffe. "The loss of accreditation will have little effect on the person, or persons, directly responsible for this action. The greatest loss will be suffered by those least responsible, the children of Clayton County."

Parent, Boyer, said the overall performance of board members at their meetings was a problem which needs to be addressed. "Would you want your children to be watching these board meetings on TV, when it seems they are more inline with Jerry Springer or MTV?" he said.

Sid Chapman, the president of the Clayton County Education Association, took the harshest tone with board members, however, and alluded to an outside element being behind the school system's accreditation woes. "I've seen this performance before," Chapman angrily said. "The actors have changed, but the writer, director and producer is still the same. It's time to draw a curtain on this horror story."

On another matter, the board approved the selection of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, Ltd., a search firm with experience at finding superintendents for school systems, to conduct the search for former superintendent Barbara Pulliam's replacement. The cost of the firm's participation will be $44,000.

The board approved the selection by a 7-2-2 vote. Johnson, chairperson Ericka Davis, Eddie White, Yolanda Everett and David Ashe voted in favor of the selection, while Haynes and Lois Baines-Hunter voted against it. Scott and Michelle Strong abstained from the vote. The search for Pulliam's replacement is expected to begin no later than Jan. 1, 2008.