SACS investigation of Clayton BOE 'highly likely'

The Clayton County school system is facing the possibility of an investigation by its accrediting agency for the second time in less than five years.

The school system was put on probation in 2003 because members of the Board of Education were micromanaging the district in the wake of the board's firing of former superintendent, Dan Colwell. It took the school system two years to get full accreditation back.

Board members are now being accused of violating at least four of the seven standards of accreditation set by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS CASI). One of the standards, which may have been violated, covers governance of the school system.

If members of the board have again violated SACS CASI's standards, harsher penalties and less leniency from the accrediting agency could be in the school system's future, according to the agency's chief.

"We have deep concerns that this has happened in a short amount of time after the last incident," said Mark Elgart, president of SACS CASI. "If these accusations are validated, and the board continues on this path, it could result in a loss of accreditation. There is clearly a recurring pattern of behavior here."

The allegations are currently centered on the behaviors and actions of two members of the board of education, although Elgart would not say which board members. He added there are other issues, which "could include more board members," though. If the school system is put on a one-year probation by SACS CASI, it is unlikely the district will be given an extension like it was the last time, Elgart said.

Elgart said his organization has received "several" complaints from Clayton County residents, school system staff members and members of the board of education. He said his agency has been receiving complaints about the Clayton Board of Education "over the last eight to 10 weeks."

Many of the complaints have been in the form of unsigned letters and e-mails, he added, but SACS CASI has also received at least three signed letters, asking for an investigation of the board members. Unsigned letters are not considered when SACS CASI performs an investigation, but Elgart said the complaints in those requests were consistent with the signed requests for an investigation.

Elgart sent a letter to Clayton County Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan late last week, outlining the charges against the school system. The school system has until Dec. 12 to respond to the charges, which include violations of the accreditation standard covering school system governance. SACS will decide what to do after it receives a response.

"If we believe there is substantial evidence of violations, we will conduct an investigation," Elgart said. "Based on the information we've received, it's highly likely we will do an investigation."

Elgart would not tell the Clayton News Daily who sent the signed letters. He deferred the question to the school system, who received copies of the complaints with Elgart's letter to Duncan.

Charles White, a spokesman for the school system, told a reporter that an open records request would need to filed to get a copy of Elgart's letter, and the accompanying complaints. The request has been filed.

White issued a statement on the district's behalf, though, when he was asked about the complaints, and how the school system intends to handle a possible investigation. "The complaints are not related to the school district's educational programs, schools, school staffs, or the system-level administration," according to the statement. "We intend to cooperate with SACS during the course of its investigation."

The statement concludes by saying officials from the school system are declining to comment further on the issue, because of the possible investigation.

According to SACS CASI policy 3.26, an investigation will not be undertaken by the agency "unless allegations are supported by substantial evidence, and involve matters that could seriously hinder or disrupt the educational effectiveness of the institution."

Board members, and former school system employees, have been making allegations of actions which violate SACS policies, since August. Board member Norreese Haynes has accused Rod Johnson, the board's vice chairman, of micromanaging the school system on several occasions. Johnson, in turn, accused Haynes of micromanaging the selection process for an alternative education service provider.

The first public announcement that a board member wanted SACS to get involved didn't come until earlier this month, though. During the Nov. 5 board meeting, Johnson said he was asking the agency to investigate board member Sandra Scott. Johnson said a complaint had been made by a former football coach at Morrow High School, alleging that Scott used her position to get the coach fired.

Johnson, Haynes and board chairperson, Ericka Davis, could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Scott said she believes Johnson did go through with his intention to ask SACS to investigation her. She welcomes an investigation into the situation involving herself and the former coach at Morrow High School, she said, but she believes SACS should not get involved in what she called a "personal matter."

"I do not feel he [Johnson] has any information to back up, or substantiate, his claims against me," Scott said. "Why do they want them [SACS CASI] to do an investigation that will destroy the children of Clayton County?"