By Curt Yeomans
Members of the Clayton County Board of Education say they "now understand the seriousness" of a possible investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
The declaration came after an hour and a half executive session with legal consultants Thursday night at a called meeting to discuss inquiries from SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement.
The accrediting agency has been receiving complaints about the behavior of board members since September. Three board members are currently at the center of SACS' inquiries, but the investigation could continue to grow and involve the majority of the board.
"We have agreed as a board to try to work together for the benefit of the children," said Ericka Davis, the board's chairperson. "We humbly apologize for the disruption and distress this has caused to our parents, students, staff and citizens of Clayton County."
The board met with the Marietta-based law firm of Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers, P.C. The firm is working on a corrective-action plan to be presented to SACS. Davis said the school system has already incurred "under $25,000" in fees in that effort.
The entire board has agreed to "make no comments to the press" concerning the possible investigation, Davis said at the end of the meeting.
Verbal sparring has been widespread among board members.
The meeting came a day after board member, Norreese Haynes, who is at the center of SACS' inquiries, sent an e-mail to Mark Elgart, president of SACS CASI, commenting on charges of micromanaging leveled against him by Rod Johnson, the board's vice chairman.
Haynes also told Elgart he plans to file a complaint against Johnson and board member Davis. Haynes accuses the two of micromanaging.
Earlier SACS complaints were also filed against board members, Sandra Scott and Lois Baines-Hunter. If Haynes files his complaints, it will mean SACS could be investigating more than half of the board by the end of the year.
The involvement of SACS is the latest chapter in an ongoing feud between Johnson and Haynes, which goes back to at least 2004. In that year's primary election for the board's District 5 seat, Johnson edged past Haynes by one vote to face Barbara Wells in a runoff. In January of this year, Johnson beat Haynes, who now occupies the District 8 seat, by a 5-3-1 vote to become the board's vice chairman.
The feuding between the two men became public in August when Haynes began accusing Johnson of plotting to seize control of the school system in the wake of the July 23 resignation of former superintendent, Barbara Pulliam.
Recently, Johnson sent requests to the state attorney general's office, and SACS, asking for an investigation of Haynes.
Johnson alleges that Haynes engaged in micromanaging by interfering in the selection process of an alternative education provider for the school system. A reply from the state attorney general's office informed Johnson his office did not have jurisdiction in the matter.
In Haynes' e-mail to Elgart, he accused Johnson of going to SACS with complaints as a way to get back at Haynes for public accusations about micromanaging. "Rod is engaging in a very audacious attempt of flipping the whole issue of micromanaging," Haynes says.
The tension between Haynes and Johnson has gotten so volatile in recent months, it resulted in a shouting match between the two men at an Oct. 29 work session.
How the board is conducting its business has become a concern for SACS officials. "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 told the Clayton News Daily.
Parents and spokesmen for educators also are complaining.
"The conduct of the board has put the school system in jeopardy," said Larry O'Keefe, father of a Morrow High School student.
The matter of SACS involvement is going to bring out more accusations, believes Sid Chapman, the president of the Clayton County Education Association. "It just seems like it's turning into a fiasco. If you start attacking people, personally, sooner or later, someone is going to respond," he said.
The school system was put on probation by SACS in 2003, because of micromanagement by board members. The school system got a one-year extension in 2004, and was removed from probation in 2005.
Seven of the people who were on the board during the last investigation were voted out of office in either, the 2004 or 2006 elections. An eighth board member, Dr. Sue Ryan, stepped down in March 2003, citing family-related reasons. Davis is the only current board member who was on the board during the last investigation.