By Curt Yeomans
Jonesboro Police officers had to stop two public outbursts, and the Clayton County Board of Education walked out on a member of the Georgia General Assembly on Saturday, during a called meeting in which board Vice chairperson Michelle Strong was barely able to keep control of the proceedings.
The board was meeting to vote on a contract for corrective superintendent John Thompson, which was unanimously accepted. Strong and board members Sandra Scott, David Ashe, Yolanda Everett and Lois Baines-Hunter were the only members who attended the meeting.
The gathering began, however, with Ashe storming toward a member of the media, calling her "a liar" and threatening to "attack" her, before a police officer dragged him away.
The meeting ended with parents, grandparents and state Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale) accusing board members of shutting the public out of school system affairs.
"You all have embarrassed Clayton County, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves," screamed Glenda Bartlett, a grandmother of two students at Arnold Elementary School, before she was removed from the building by a police officer. "You need to hang your head for what you've done to the children of this school system."
Parents have been angry at the board for months over the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' decision to take away the system's accreditation, if nine mandates for improvement are not met by Sept. 1. Several parents, students, business and elected officials have called on the entire board to resign.
Thompson is being brought in as corrective superintendent to help the district deal with the accreditation crisis. His $285,000 contract will last through June 30, 2009, although it can be extended for six more months. It includes benefits such as a school-system-provided fax machine for his home, internet access, a laptop and "other electronic devices for effective modern communication."
His contract requires the board to pay for all maintenance and recurring charges for those devices. The contract for former Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan did not include such a benefit.
Thompson also will get a tax-sheltered annuity, funded by the board; membership in five professional organizations of his choice, and "appropriate security measures" for himself and his family "in the event of public controversy, or for any other reason" where either Thompson or board members feel such measures are necessary.
"His initial requirements were higher because of the challenges this school system is facing," said Dorsey Hopson, the school district's legal counsel, as he addressed board members. "His salary requests eventually came down because he wanted to be here. He wanted to help the children of this school system. The board has broad discretion about what type of leader it is looking for ... "He had initially asked for a longer contract, but the board limited the length, because it did not want a new board to come in and be saddled with Dr. Thompson."
Thompson's hiring is controversial because members of the media, and the public, had been led to believe he had withdrawn his name from consideration for the position last month. As a result, the board's April 23 decision to offer a contract to Thompson surprised many people. The board is not allowed, under state law, to vote to offer someone a contract without naming the person 14 days in advance.
Hopson said no one should have been surprised by Thompson's hiring, though.
"There have been suggestions in the newspapers that this was done illegally," Hopson said. "Dr. Thompson was identified as a candidate on March 15. He never notified the board of his intention to withdraw his name from consideration. Therefore, the required 14 days did lapse before the board made this decision."
Vice chairperson Strong said she called for Saturday's meeting after consulting with other board members. Strong said she is the board's acting chair since Chairman Eddie White told her he plans to resign. White has said he plans to resign by Monday, but has not yet officially stepped down.
"A majority of the Board requested a called meeting to vote on Dr. Thompson's proposed contract," Strong said. "As acting chair, I called a special meeting to consider the issue."
Bartlett's outburst took place right after the board approved the contract. As she was escorted out the door by a Jonesboro Police officer, Strong called for a motion to adjourn. Rep. Abdul-Salaam then stepped up and tried to get the board members to allow public comment.
"Are you not going to let the public have an opportunity to speak?" she asked the board members. "This is a public meeting, you have to give the public an opportunity to speak."
The board voted to adjourn the meeting while Abdul-Salaam tried to speak.
"Why won't you even let a state representative speak to you?" she asked board members, but they ignored her inquiries and walked out of the meeting.
Afterward, Abdul-Salaam vented her frustrations with the board to members of the media. She said she plans to file a lawsuit against the board today in an effort to stop Thompson from taking over the school system, and accused the board of breaking promises to the students and parents of Clayton County.
"SACS said the board needs to hire a permanent superintendent," Abdul-Salaam exclaimed. "In what world do they think a corrective superintendent meets that description? If you do not understand your
oath of office, or you are not willing to do the right thing for the [nearly] 53,000 children in this school system, then you need to step down."
Linda Smith and Vernetta Reeves, both parents of juniors at Jonesboro High School, were shocked, and a little embarrassed, by the events which transpired at the board meeting.
"The public is tired of this," Reeves said. "I want to see their policies about how board meetings are supposed to be run. We have a right to find out what is going on in this building [the Central Administration Complex] each and every day."
"We put you [board members] in place, but we have no say?" Smith asked. "We're at a pretty low point right now. The ones [board members] who are left evidently don't care what the public thinks."
Smith said Gov. Sonny Perdue and state school Superintendent Kathy Cox need to take on a larger role in solving the school system's problems.
Perdue has thus far instructed the Governor's Office on Student Achievement to review attendance records; Secretary of State Karen Handel was asked to investigate residential information for each board member. And the governor sent state board of education members James Bostic and Brad Bryant to act as liaisons between his office and the school system.
Smith and several other parents do not think Perdue has done enough to save the school system, though. They would like to see a state take-over of Clayton County schools.
"Don't they see what we are going through down here?" Smith said. "Glenn Brock [the board's special attorney for accreditation crisis] has left. [Board Chairman] Eddie White has left. [Former board Chairperson] Ericka Davis has left. There's almost no one left. How many more people need to leave before the state steps in to help us?"
Bartlett just shook her head in disgust as she stood in the parking lot after meeting. She said the meeting was a sign of the board's "failure to function properly."
"They can't seem to get anything right," she said. "This was the jewel of the state at one time. Now it has gone to the slums. Everybody has got to unite against this board. What happened here [on Saturday] was a slap in the face to all of us."