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Thompson addresses public about Clayton schools

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Dr. John Thompson told members of the media, school system officials and community members he wants to make Clayton County Public Schools such a strong, high performing district "the students who left in recent years will want to come back."

School system officials held a press conference on Thursday at the district's Central Administration Complex to introduce Thompson to the community. He was flanked by school board Vice chairperson Michelle Strong, and board members Sandra Scott, Lois Baines-Hunter, David Ashe and Yolanda Everett.

Thompson is being brought in to help the district deal with an accreditation crisis which could result in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) revoking the school system's accreditation on Sept. 1, if nine mandates for improvement are not met.

He said it is his goal to make sure Clayton County schools are providing a "world class education" to the county's children.

"It is my pleasure to accept this position," Thompson said. "I am fully aware and deeply concerned about the accreditation issue. By taking on this challenge, I am going to make sure the district does its best comply with SACS standards. I don't know if it [ a loss of accreditation] can be prevented, though."

The board members who flanked Thompson on Thursday were the same ones who voted to offer him a contract on the preceding night, and several of them were smiling as Thompson answered questions from the media.

Chairman Eddie White was the lone dissenting voice in the vote to hire Thompson. He did not attend the press conference on Thursday, and could not be reached by the Clayton News Daily for comment.

The smiles didn't hide cracks in the school system, though.

Glenn Brock, the special attorney hired by the board in December to help the school system retain its accreditation, announced he and his law firm are severing ties with the board of education.

Brock told board members on Wednesday a loss of accreditation could be avoided if they followed his advice. The board narrowly decided, in a 4-3 vote on Wednesday, to keep Brock. Board Chairman Eddie White, Vice chairperson Michelle Strong, and board members David Ashe and Rod Johnson voted in favor of retaining Brock's services.

Board members Sandra Scott, Yolanda Everett and Lois Baines-Hunter voted against the measure.

When asked during an executive session on Wednesday if he thought the board members would follow his advice, Brock told a Clayton News Daily reporter "That's up to them." In a statement released on Thursday, however, he said a "continuing pattern of actions" led him to conclude "I cannot feel confident they will be able to avoid losing accreditation.

"Immediately after a majority of the Board in a public session said they wanted to follow my advice, they went into executive session and took action that demonstrated they would not keep their word," Brock said in the statement. "Chairman Eddie White, Vice chairperson Michelle Strong, and Board Member Rod Johnson were not advised of the potential actions to be held in executive session ,nor were they aware of the other Board Members' premeditated intention.

"If a majority of the Board is going to continue this deceptive and unethical behavior within hours of agreeing to certain terms with me, it is not realistic to expect they will keep their word for the next several months."

During the press conference to introduce Thompson, school system In-House Legal Counsel Dorsey Hopson called Brock's claims "borderline slanderous."

Thompson said it was a matter between the board members and Brock, but added "If you don't want the best for the children, then get out of the way, because here I come."

Charlton Bivins, chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Clayton County (C4), said he believes Brock's departure is not going to have major repercussions for the district. He added he believes Brock put strategies in place to save the accreditation and the board will "continue to use those strategies."

"I can't see them starting from scratch, it just doesn't make sense to do that at this point," Bivins said.

Ericka Davis, the board's former chairperson, said Brock's departure could be "another hurdle the board has to overcome."

"I think where his decision to leave will hurt the board is the fact that Mr. Brock had a high level of credibility with the community, whereas we did not," Davis said. "Whenever someone leaves who has a higher degree of credibility than you have, it's going to be a problem ... That being said, at the end of the day, it's up to the board to make the next move. The board is the only group who can meet these nine mandates ...

"If Dr. Thompson is able to come in and fill that void, it may offset Mr. Brock's departure."

While Thompson and school system officials wouldn't dwell too much on Brock's departure, they were also tight-lipped when repeatedly asked about what Thompson's contract would look like.

The contract is still being negotiated, according to Thompson.

Thompson will receive a $285,000 a year contract which will last through June 30, 2009, said Richard Schwartz, the candidate's attorney. The former superintendent of the Pittsburgh and Tulsa school systems will not get a driver, or private security in Clayton County, his legal representative added.

Schwartz said his client never told the Clayton County school board it had to approve a team of consultants worth $2 million if board members wanted Thompson to take over the district.

Thompson's plan for improving the school system includes:

· Establishing a transition advisory committee, made up of educators from across Georgia, and the nation.

· Meeting with faith-based leaders, business leaders, students, parents, teachers, community leaders, and teachers' union leaders to discuss ways to improve the school system. Metro Association of Classroom Educators (MACE) President John Trotter was the only person Thompson identified by name, however.

· Continuing to use the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council and the Superintendent's Parent Advisory Council.

· Using high performing students, such as Jonesboro High School's Mock Trial team, Lovejoy High School's Technology Student Association team, and E. W. Oliver Elementary School's Stock Market Game teams as role models to encourage other Clayton County students to strive for success.

· Expanding the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement (AP) programs.

"Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time I get to work," Thompson said as he concluded his initial remarks.

Dr. Richard Greene, who led the search for corrective superintendent candidates, said talks between himself and Dorsey Hopson, the legal counsel for Clayton County schools, began 10 days ago.

Greene said Thompson had a change of heart as he continued to think about the children and how they will be affected by the accreditation crisis, and decided he wanted the job after all. Greene said the discussions to hire Thompson took place over the last 10 days.

"I think the board made the right decision," Greene said. "He's a strong, strong, strong leader ... He has the skills necessary to turn around this district. I think he has the right temperament for this job, the right intelligence, the right experience, and the right leadership skills to get the job done."

Greene also said he believed the board "took a leadership role" and made "the best decision for the district" by rejecting criticism from SACS president Mark Elgart and state liaison James Bostic, who felt Thompson and another candidate for the position were not the best people to lead the school system.

Bostic said on Thursday he does not think the board made a wise decision by offering a contract to Thompson.

When Bostic and Elgart began to criticize the candidates for the position, Greene and board leaders said Thompson and the other candidate withdrew their names from consideration.

Thompson and Hopson denied the candidate ever withdrew his name, though. "He did not tell the board that," Hopson said.

The question of where Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan will go, if Thompson signs his contract, remains, though. Duncan was the principal of Riverdale High School when she took over as former Superintendent Barbara Pulliam's temporary replacement in July 2007.

"She's [Duncan] been offered a contract, but I don't know where she'll go, the board and Dr. Thompson will have to decide that," Hopson said. "When the board did the administrative re-elections a few weeks ago, they approved a contract for her, so she'd be guaranteed a place in the district."