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Attorney on accreditation: 'A lot of work is being done'

Glenn Brock, the attorney hired by the Clayton County Board of Education to handle the school system's accreditation crisis, said the board is close to complying with at least two of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) nine mandates for improvement.

The school system is facing a Sept. 1 deadline to meet the nine mandates for improvement, or SACS will revoke the district's accreditation.

SACS officials put the blame for the majority of the district's woes on the board of education, which was called "dysfunctional" and "fatally flawed" in the accrediting agency's Feb. 15 report on the school system.

Brock expressed optimism about the school system's ability to be in compliance with all of the mandates, or have at least made "significant progress" toward meeting them by the deadline. He indicated that the school system is getting closer to completing mandates dealing with ethics and attendance records.

He addressed five of the mandates during his presentation to the board on Monday.

The mandates Brock touched upon dealt with ethics policies; reviews of other policies; forensic audits; attendance-records audits, governance, and conflict-resolution training. He also addressed one of SACS' Standards for Accreditation, which dealt with the school system's vision and purpose.

He said progress is being made to address the following issues:

· Vision and Purpose - In their report on the school system, SACS officials said "the system has failed to establish a vision for the system in collaboration with its stakeholders." Brock said the board will participate in a retreat to establish a vision and purpose for the district. No date has been set for when the retreat will occur.

· Ethics - Mandate No. 3 states the board must "enact and commit to an ethics policy that governs the actions and work of the members of the board of education and staff including appropriate steps when said policy is violated." Brock pointed to House Bill 1302, which both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly passed last month. The bill would establish an ethics panel, and a code of ethics for the school board if it is signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue. Brock recommended the board take the ethics code contained in the bill, and create a new ethics policy which duplicates the bill's language and subject matter.

· Policy Review - The board has to gain a clear understanding of, and commit to following, its "policy role and responsibilities," according to mandate No. 4. Over the next three months, the board is scheduled to review, and revise, at least six policies covering its own authority over the district.

· Forensic Audit - In mandate No. 5, SACS officials expressed concerns over the board's ability to live up to its fiscal responsibilities, and demanded a forensic audit of the school system's finances and spending habits. The controversial 2006 purchase of 155 acres of land in Riverdale, the awarding of contracts and the board's hiring practices were cited as examples.

Two auditing firms, the Investigative Accounting Group and Cherry, Bekaert and Holland, have been identified by the district as possible candidates to conduct the forensic audit. The state auditor's office has offered to assist in any way it can. Brock cautioned the audit will probably not be completed by SACS' deadline, but "by starting it now, we should be well on our way to accomplishing this requirement when Sept. 1 rolls around."

· Attendance Records - SACS officials required the school system to perform comprehensive audits of student attendance records after board and district staff members told investigators, during interviews in January, the records may have been altered to avoid "legal actions or sanctions." Brock told board members he and other district officials have already met with representatives from the Governor's Office of Student Affairs, which will conduct the audit. Five middle schools and one high school were visited by the auditors, who are currently reviewing the documents and staff interviews compiled during the investigation, Brock said. The attorney also said the audit should be completed within two months.

· Conflict Resolution and Governance Training - SACS officials determined both the board, and the district's administration, operated in a "state of chaos," according to mandate No. 8. The accrediting agency's officials recommend the board bring in outside support until the school system can "demonstrate sustainable organizational and governing practices that support a healthy and effective educational system." The board has been going through training with representatives from the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government. Two training sessions have already been held since the beginning of the year. Three more are scheduled to take place over the next two months.

Dr. Mark Elgart, president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, was at the meeting on Monday, but was unavailable for comment. He could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

As the meeting came to a close early on Tuesday morning, the board elected board member Michelle Strong to serve as its new vice chairperson. She replaces board member Eddie White, who was elected to the chairman's position earlier in the meeting.