By Curt Yeomans
Ericka Davis, chairperson of the Clayton County Board of Education, wasn't surprised Tuesday when she learned a grand jury will investigate the board members, and possibly seek indictments on criminal charges of delinquency.
Davis has addressed two previous grand juries, to discuss gang violence and a controversial $18 million land deal. This grand jury is going to review school system-related documents from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which says it will revoke the district's accreditation if nine mandates for improvement are not met by a Sept. 1 deadline.
"The grand jury is well within its rights to investigate us," Davis said. "My concern is that the members of a grand jury are supposed to be unbiased. Do these people on the grand jury have brothers or sisters, sons or daughters, or grandchildren in the school system? If so, can they do their job without feeling hatred, malice or fear toward the board?" she asked.
Davis is afraid the grand jury investigation will distract the remaining five board members, who haven't announced plans to resign from the board, from the job of making sure the district meets all of SACS' mandates by the end of the summer.
Davis' comments come as she prepares to step down from office before April 11, when Clayton County Board of Elections Director Annie Bright has to know if her seat will need to be on the ballot for the July 15 primary election.
"It's just one more trial they will have to endure," Davis said. "One more added thing for the board members to deal with. I have to wonder how they will even deal with this."
The news that the board was being looked at by another grand jury caused Davis to express concerns about the health of the county.
"What I see is a county that is bleeding, and as I sit here as a citizen, I see no end in sight to the bleeding," she said. "We are constantly finding new and creative ways to point fingers at each other and assign blame for everything that's wrong with this county ... Eventually, we're going to reach a point where no one will feel like they want to live here."
The chairperson said the board shares the burden for it's own bad press, and a viewpoint of "so goes the board, so goes the perception of what this county is like" has developed in the broader metro Atlanta community.
She said the board and community members share equal responsibility for the perception of the county, because of the divisiveness which has caught the media's attention in recent months.
Davis also said the county can't move forward because the community and board members are "only interested in picking each other apart."
The authors of the SACS' Feb. 15 report on the district called the board "dysfunctional" and the document includes allegations of board members engaging in micromanagement, unethical behavior and misusing district funds.
"You've got a SACS report that points to the school board, and asks it to meet its responsibilities, and the punishment is a potential loss of accreditation," Davis said. "Since that time, you've had different entities asking board members to resign. You've had a meeting where more than 2,000 residents demanded resignations. Whether you have an entirely new board, or some board members remain, it's going to take time to heal the wounds."
Meanwhile, the board released a statement on Wednesday to point out progress being made to meet the nine mandates from SACS.
Board members quickly began to criticize Dr. Mark Elgart, president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, in the three-page statement. The members claim his comments in the media have hampered the search for a corrective superintendent, and that he is not treating the school system as fairly as Lanier County schools were treated two years ago, when that district was in a similar situation.
"Although the Board has worked diligently to maintain its accreditation, we are somewhat concerned about what we perceive to be unfair treatment by SACS," the statement said. "From the outset of this process, it appears that SACS President and CEO, Dr. Mark Elgart, has rushed to judgment about this Board and its ability to maintain its accreditation ...
"The Board has fully cooperated with every aspect of SACS' investigation. It is important to note that the SACS complaints against the Board were all related to alleged personal misconduct. The Board is unaware of any complaints alleging that the Board of Education as an entity engaged in misconduct," the statement said.
"We are also unaware of any complaints alleging that any Board members committed infractions while acting on behalf of the Board or within the scope of their authority as Board members. Since individual board members cannot legally bind the board, we sincerely hope that SACS does not hold the district's students accountable for alleged board member misconduct."