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SACS chief says accreditation loss is 'possible'

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) doesn't take away the accreditation of a school system very often, but it has happened.

Mark Elgart, the president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, said there have been only three times in the last 20 years when an entire school system has lost its accreditation. Clayton's school system is in danger of joining that short list, if changes don't happen soon, the SACS chief warns.

"There is enough evidence that the children of Clayton County are being shortchanged because the governance and leadership of the county [school system] is in chaos," Elgart said.

Elgart's comments come on the heels of new requests for a broader investigation of board members.

Clayton schools were put on probation by SACS in 2003 because of governance issues, and the agency's officials are concerned because it is happening for the second time in less than five years.

The SACS chief said his agency is receiving phone calls, e-mails and letters "almost daily" from Clayton residents. Two letters have come from a source on the board,s itself - Rod Johnson, the board's vice chairman.

Johnson's latest request is for an investigation of the spending habits, and residency of board member Lois Baines-Hunter. His first letter to Elgart asked for an investigation of alleged misconduct by board member Norreese Haynes.

Johnson could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The school system has until Dec. 10 to respond to SACS' inquiries concerning how the Board of Education is managing the school system, but Elgart said a full investigation by his agency is looking increasingly possible as new allegations come forward.

Three board members are now being accused of misconduct, with the latest accusations, which SACS received this week, being leveled against Baines-Hunter. Baines-Hunter, Haynes and Sandra Scott are at the center of a possible investigation.

Johnson's allegations against Baines-Hunter center on $523, which was spent on a two-night stay in a hotel room in downtown Atlanta during a conference at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He also claims Baines-Hunter, who represents District 2, does not live in Clayton County.

Baines-Hunter explained that the conference stay was at the Council of Urban Boards of Education held Sept. 27-30 of this year. She said she was asked by Deanna Jordan, the board's secretary, if she would like to attend the conference, and lead a tour of Clayton County schools for other participants at the conference.

She was told to be in downtown Atlanta at 7:30 a.m., on a Saturday morning. She agreed to attend, but requested a hotel room for one night. She felt there would be heavy traffic that morning, because of a nearby Georgia Tech football game.

Baines-Hunter said she stayed in the hotel a second night because she "got caught up in the moment" and decided to participate in the rest of the conference, after conference participants praised Clayton County schools. She said fellow board members Haynes, Scott, Yolanda Everett, and Chairperson Ericka Davis participated in various portions of the conference.

Charles White, a spokesman for the school system, said each board member has a $2,500 travel budget, which covers airfare, hotel rooms and food for conferences. Jordan makes hotel reservations for board members, but they are responsible for providing an invoice for the expenses. The invoice goes to Theresa McDugald, the school system's chief financial officer, for approval and payment.

On the other issue, Baines-Hunter has denied allegations that she doesn't live in Clayton County. She showed her driver's license to the Clayton News Daily after a Nov. 5 Board of Education work session. An investigation into her residency will show she lives in the county, she says.

Meanwhile, Jackie Headley, treasurer of the Pointe South Middle School's Parent-Teacher Student Association, told other board members she was filing a complaint to have Baines-Hunter's residency and spending habits investigated. She even asked Baines-Hunter to resign from the board.

"This board member has taken advantage of the Clayton County taxpayers," Headley said. "I find this board member's actions unethical, and the money was wasted."

Baines-Hunter has no plans to bend to Johnson or Headley, though.

The District 2 board member said she doesn't understand why Johnson is pursuing an investigation of her activities. Fighting back tears, she said: "He [Johnson] can throw everything he wants to throw at me. I'm going to stand because my mission is the children of Clayton County."

Elgart said a parent from Clayton County asked his agency to investigate Baines-Hunter, but said he wasn't sure if that request came from Headley. He is aware his office has received Johnson's newest request, but has not seen it himself.

White said the school system cannot address the latest requests for an investigation, because Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan has not received a letter from Elgart explaining new allegations.

If the school system loses its accreditation, the affects on Clayton County students could range from ineligibility for HOPE scholarships, to increased difficulty when applying for college. Elgart said colleges with more competitive applicant pools look for ways to separate candidates, including examining the quality of education provided by the student's local school system.

SACS won't officially make a decision regarding an investigation until the district submits its response to the initial inquiries.

However, it is looking as if "the only way to determine the truth of these accusations is to come on site and conduct an investigation," Elgart said.

"It [the loss of accreditation] is possible," he added.

"This is a greater concern than the last time," he said, "because it is a repeat of a previous problem. People need to realize this is a serious matter. This school system could lose its accreditation, if this behavior doesn't change."