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SACS investigators conduct first-day interviews

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Looking for any signs of improvement in Clayton County schools, investigators from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) spent their first day in the district hunkered down in it's administrative complex, asking district officials about their 2,300-page response to the accrediting agency.

Jennifer Oliver, a spokesperson for SACS, said the team interviewed district officials and reviewed school system documents. The nine-member investigative team is meeting with board of education members; candidates for open school board seats; school system administrators, and members of the Clayton County community while looking at the overall health of the district.

The team is scheduled to conclude its on-site review today.

"The special review team that is visiting the Clayton County School System [Thursday and today] will provide an on-site evaluation of the school district ... to determine whether the district has effectively and substantively addressed the nine requirements to maintain accreditation," said Mark Elgart, president of SACS, in the statement which was released Thursday afternoon.

The school system is facing a Sept. 1 deadline to either meet nine mandates for improvement, or show significant progress toward achieving those goals. If the district can not show either, its accreditation will be revoked. On July 31, school system officials sent their response to SACS, outlining progress made since the accrediting agency announced its plans for the district in February.

In his statement on Thursday, Elgart said the school system, and Clayton County residents will know what the future holds for the district by the end of the month.

"Once the team's report has been completed, it will be forwarded to the AdvancED Accreditation Commission for an accreditation decision," Elgart said. "This process will not be complete until the last week in August, and Clayton County will be informed of the decision prior to September 1."

The district has been preparing for the SACS team's visit while also dealing with a state administrative hearing which began on Tuesday. Four Jonesboro attorneys and a retired teacher are seeking -- through the hearing -- to get board members Michelle Strong, Sandra Scott, Lois Baines-Hunter and Yolanda Everett dismissed from office for alleged malfeasance.

Attorneys for the board members did not get to put any witnesses on the stand before the SACS visit began. The board members will take the stand on Tuesday, but Julie Lewis, the school system's legal counsel, was worried on Wednesday night that some damage may have already been done.

Witnesses portrayed board members as "rude," "disrespectful," and "belligerent" toward each other and staff members during the first two days of testimony.

"Dr. Elgart says it won't have any influence on the outcome of the visit, but none of us -- certainly not the SACS review team -- live in a bubble," Lewis said. "They have probably seen the coverage of this hearing in the media and that could impact their decision."