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Thompson takes over Clayton schools

By Curt Yeomans

John Thompson spent his first day as Clayton County's corrective superintendent looking down on the people whose hands he was shaking on Monday, but it was not because he thought lowly of those people.

Thompson, who is over six feet tall, was at local schools where he greeted students, many of whom were under five feet tall.

He wanted to spend his first day getting acquainted with some of the 52,805 students to whom he is now responsible for providing an education. He said being around children has always made him "excited" about serving as a district's superintendent. He previously led districts in Tulsa, Okla., and Pittsburgh, Penn.

"If you don't get fired up by being around the kids, then you need to get out of this line of work," Thompson told reporters during his tour of Lee Street Elementary School in Jonesboro.

Earlier, Thompson was sworn in by Clayton County Probate Judge Pam Ferguson in her courtroom. In addition to his trip to Lee Street Elementary, Thompson also visited Lovejoy High School and Pointe South Middle School. "If you go by the media, you'd think this is a terrible place, but when you go into the school, you realize it's actually a very good place," he said.

The new superintendent's visits to the schools cannot hide the mounting criticism about his hiring, though. Part of the controversy swirling around him is due to the fact that two representatives of Gov. Sonny Perdue, and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools President Mark Elgart panned Thompson's candidacy for the position. SACS will revoke the district's accreditation, if nine mandates for improvement are not met by Sept. 1. Thompson was brought in to deal with SACS-related issues.

The school system denies Elgart ever questioned Thompson's qualifications, however.

"Before the Board offered a contract to Dr. Thompson, Dr. Mark Elgart advised the Board that he never stated that Dr. Thompson is unqualified to lead the district," said district spokesman Charles White in the statement. "According to Dr. Elgart, any media report stating that he said Dr. Thompson was unqualified is inaccurate."

Elgart could not be reached for verification of the district's claim on Monday.

Thompson said he does not understand the criticism about his qualifications. He explained that he has served on "numerous" SACS site-visit teams in the past, and has over 40 years of experience as a teacher, administrator, superintendent and educational consultant.

"I'm trying to figure out what I need to do to be deemed qualified for this position," he said. "The antagonism is a big piece of the turmoil in this district."

State liaison James Bostic said on Monday he doesn't have personal feelings against Thompson, but the disapproval of SACS officials, members of the public and Glenn Brock, the attorney who was working with the board of education to retain the accreditation until he quit last week, show that board members made a poor decision.

He also said he does not believe the system will keep it's accreditation because of everything which has happened in the last week, including: Brock's decision to quit; Chairman Eddie White's decision to resign; Thompson's hiring, and a potentially illegal called board meeting, which began with board member David Ashe threatening a member of the media.

"I don't have a clue about what they can do to keep the accreditation at this point, given everything that has happened," said Bostic, with disappointment in his voice. "It's really unfortunate for the people of Clayton County and the students in the school system that it has come to this."

On Saturday, former board member Norreese Haynes issued a statement regarding the board's decisions over the last six days, calling the actions "obscene and unconscionable." He also claimed board members defy "any sense of civility and decorum," referring to an April 26 called board meeting, which devolved into chaos, and insisted the board apologize to Brock, Bostic and Brad Bryant, the other state liaison, for treating them "shabbily."

Haynes said Clayton County students need "accreditation, not machismo."

Haynes and Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, questioned the legality of the meeting in which Thompson's contract was approve. Both men insist the meeting was not legal, since it was not called by former Chairman Eddie White.

Vice chairperson Michelle Strong called the meeting because White told her he planned to resign. On Saturday, she referred to herself as the "acting chair," but White sent out a statement the same day, announcing that his resignation would not go into effect until Monday.

White said he was stepping down because "some members of the board refuse to adhere to Policy BH - Board Operations, Code of Ethics for School Board Members - and conduct themselves in a professional manner."

"The Clayton County NAACP demands that five Clayton County School Board members resign immediately because of their continued failure to follow policies, procedures and Georgia Open Meetings Laws," Matthews said in a statement.

Matthews also accused board members of being "poor stewards of the taxpayers' money" because Thompson's contract calls for the district to pay him a base salary of $285,000 per year, and $2,000 per month for temporary housing, which can either be in Clayton County or "surrounding areas."

Geneva Anthony, a parent of three Lee Street Elementary School students, was not thinking about the controversy surrounding Thompson's hiring when he visited the school on Monday. Anthony, a volunteer at the school, shook hands with Thompson, and he made a promise to do everything in his power to ensure the schools provide the children of Clayton County with a "world-class education."

"It was a surprise to see him walk in the classroom, but it was a nice surprise," Anthony said. "He seems like a real nice guy, who has genuine concern for the welfare of the students."