By Curt Yeomans
Freda Perry remembers a time when parents and grandparents didn't have to worry about a school system losing its accreditation because of misbehaving board of education members.
Perry, a Jonesboro resident whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren attend Clayton County schools, said it wasn't an issue when she was a student. She added that times have changed, though, and board members need to be watched more closely than in the past.
She's concerned because the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is preparing to take away the school system's accreditation on Sept. 1, if nine mandates for improvement are not met by then. The retired Atlanta Public Schools educator is angry because SACS' decision is a response to allegations of micromanagement, unethical behavior and misuse of district funds by members of the Clayton County Board of Education.
"I don't want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to work hard, and then when they get to the end, there's no pot of gold waiting for them," Perry said.
Perry was one of nearly 1,000 parents, state legislators, school system officials and civic leaders who attended a "Mega Town Hall Meeting" on Saturday at Mt. Zion High School. The meeting was hosted by the Concerned Citizens of Clayton County (C4) as a way to educate the public about the accreditation crisis.
School system Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan; state Reps. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) and Roberta Abdul Salaam (D-Riverdale); state Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro); Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, and Riverdale City Councilman Wayne Hall were among those in attendance.
Many, who spoke, called on the community to come together and face the accreditation crisis as a united county. They also urged parents to support the district as it tries to meet the nine mandates for retaining accreditation.
"Divided we fail, and failure is not an option," Abdul-Salaam exclaimed during her remarks.
Speakers talked about legislation, which protects HOPE scholarships for Clayton County students, and legislation that establishes an ethics committee for the board of education. They discussed what vouchers are; explained who can run for elected office, and how student-athletes can only play sports at a school in another county -- while continuing to live in Clayton County -- if the school system losses its accreditation.
Parents were asked to sign up for leadership councils, which will be set up in their respective school board districts. Deanna Fontan, a junior at Morrow High School who is a member of the Concerned Class of 2009, said she and her classmates were glad to see people show up for the town hall meeting, even if the 3,000-seat gymnasium at Mt. Zion High School was not filled to capacity.
Fontan, 17, who is looking at attending, either the University of Georgia or Kennesaw State University, said she feels aggravated by the board members and their actions.
"I wish they would pay more attention to what they are doing to us, instead of thinking about themselves," Fontan said. "They were put in their positions to help us, not hurt us."
C4 leaders have come up with seven "Strategies for Success." The strategies are designed to give the community some guidance during the accreditation process. Charlton Bivins, the group's chairman, explained the strategies to the parents at the end of the town hall meeting.
The strategies include:
· Get the facts about what is going on, and base actions only on the facts. Bivins encouraged people in the audience to seek out documents, such as the SACS report on the school system, and voting information from the Clayton County Elections office.
· Learn about what the community cannot do in regards to accreditation. Several of the nine mandates from SACS are specific items the public cannot deal with, such as a forensic audit, residency verification and audits of attendance records.
· Find out what citizens can do to help the school system. Bivins said citizens can only fulfill the mandate which says "a governing board that is capable of fulfilling its roles and responsibilities" must be established. He said the voters of Clayton County must do this at the voting booth.
· Engage in "expressions of accountability." This involves writing letters, e-mails, making phone calls, holding candidate forums and town hall meetings to let elected officials know what the community expects from them, Bivins said.
· Become registered, and educated, voters. Community members were told this means not only registering to vote, but learning everything there is to know about each candidate, including which groups or individuals the candidate is associated with.
· Call for resignations. Former Chairperson Ericka Davis has already stepped down. Board member Rod Johnson has announced his plans to step down, but will not announce a date when he will do so.
· Recall of public officials. Signatures from at least 100 registered voters in a district are required to begin a recall-application process. If the application is approved by election officials, recall petitions are then issued. There must be enough signatures on the petitions to equal 30 percent of the number of people who voted in the previous election for the respective office. Only then, can there be a recall election.