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Thompson: District already 'great,' will appeal SACS' decision

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

More than 50,000 Clayton County students will wake up on Sept. 2, and go to school in an unaccredited school system because the board of education remains dysfunctional, officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) on Thursday.

Six months ago, SACS officials called the board "fatally flawed" and issued nine mandates for improving the board and the school system. On Thursday, Mark Elgart, president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, said only one of the mandates has been met since then -- No. 7 -- Verification of the residency of board members.

"The school district has yet to establish a properly functioning board of education supported by stable and normal board and superintendent relations, including respective role definitions and responsibilities," states the SACS report released by Elgart on Thursday. "Therefore, it is the recommendation of the special review team that SACS CASI and the AdvancED Accreditation commission uphold its decision to revoke the accreditation of the Clayton County Public Schools on Sept. 1, 2008, for violating the Standards for Accreditation."

The school system has two options to protect members of the graduating class of 2009 -- The district has 10 days to file an appeal, or it has until Sept. 1, 2009, to show it has fully complied with all nine mandates laid out in February. If the school system pursues the latter option, and accreditation is restored, it will be done retroactively to Sept. 1 of this year.

Corrective Superintendent John Thompson said the district plans to appeal the decision. He accused SACS of "throwing 50,000 Clayton County children under the bus," and not reading the 2,300-page response the district sent to the accrediting agency on Aug. 1.

"While the appeal is underway, the district will also proceed with the process of reinstatement," Thompson said. "While the news received today is obviously not the news we were anticipating, we remain determined to continue the work we have started, and will not rest until our accreditation is restored."

Thompson also reached out to parents, asking permission to meet with students "face-to-face," to assure them the school system will be okay. "I tell you, the sun will come out again, and then you will come back and ask me how this school system got to be so good," Thompson told reporters. "The truth is, we were always good, people just didn't recognize it."

Elgart said that once the school system files its appeal, it will have 30 days to file supporting paperwork contesting the entire report compiled by the SACS team during its visits Aug. 14 and 15. The district will have to pay the AdvancED Accreditation Office, SACS' parent organization, a projected minimum of $10,000 for the costs associated with an appeal.

AdvancED will assign three "impartial educators," who are members of the group's appeals group, to hear the appeal. The panel will hear the appeal within 60 days of its filing.

If the school system seeks the re-instatement method, it must contact SACS in writing before Sept. 1, 2009, to schedule a visit from a review team. The team will visit the district to evaluate whether the remaining eight mandates have been met.

If the accreditation is not restored within the next 12 months, the district will have to begin the entire process of pursuing accreditation from scratch. The district will have to show it is in compliance with SACS' seven standards for accreditation.

Elgart said the process can take two to three years to complete.

Board is warned

The SACS leader said a major bone of contention for SACS officials is the contract the school board awarded to Thompson in April. The contract gives Thompson the authority to bypass the board's approval on several decisions. Elgart said the board was warned of the conflict shortly after Thompson was hired. Elgart said the decision points to the board's inability to meet mandate No. 1 -- The establishment of a fully functioning board.

"The board needs to restore its governmental authority," said Elgart. "It has ceded much of its powers to the superintendent, which is a violation of SACS' Standards for Accreditation; their own policies, and state law."

Thompson said he is willing to adjust his contract to cede much of the authority given to him by the board back to the board members, or "whatever else I have to do to protect the children of this school system."

Another sign the board is not yet fully functioning, according to the SACS report, is an incident in which board member Sandra Scott distributed an allegation about former chairman Eddie White, which she obtained from an Internet blog, during an executive session. Scott was later selected to be the board's vice chairperson.

Another problem mentioned in the report were Scott's and Chairperson Michelle Strong's alleged "deceptive" actions, pertaining to their decision to recommend, during an executive session, hiring Thompson as the superintendent without White's knowledge.

Elgart said many of the recommendations were left incomplete. He said mandate No. 2 -- Removing outside influences from the board is not complete because there is not enough evidence to suggest the actions taken by the board to remove those influences, namely the Clayton County Education Association (CCEA) and the Metro Association of Classroom Educators (MACE), will be effective.

· Mandate No. 3 -- Strengthening the board's code of ethic is incomplete because the ethics commission established by the state legislature, which Elgart called "a step in the right direction," has not yet been trained, or taken office.

· Mandate No. 4 -- Reviewing and revising board policies, is not complete because the process was interrupted when special attorney Glenn Brock abruptly quit in April. The SACS report states: "The board needs to demonstrate over a sustained period of time that their understanding of the policies of the school district is reflected appropriately in their performance in carrying out the governing role and responsibilities defined by such policies."

· Mandates No. 5 -- Conducting a forensic audit, and No. 6 -- conducting an audit of attendance records, are not complete because the audits included recommendations which the review team determined had not been adopted by the school system.

· Mandate No. 8 -- Securing the services of outside conflict resolution and governance consultants is incomplete, because "The bickering, posturing, and disharmony on the board continued for several months after the [February] 2008 report was made public," according the report released on Thursday. One board member told investigators earlier this month the board has gone from "'dysfunctional' to 'non-functional.'"

· Mandate No. 9 -- Appointing a permanent superintendent has not been met because there were conflicting statements from school system staff members as to whether Thompson was a permanent superintendent, or a corrective one.

State board of Education members James Bostic and Brad Bryant, who attended the meeting between SACS officials and school system leaders on Thursday, said the remaining mandates can be met if the school board shows a commitment to meeting them.

"I think in six months, or so, they will be ready to ask SACS for a review -- if the board members are committed to meeting these mandates," said Bostic.

Meanwhile, Gov. Sonny Perdue also issued an executive order Thursday removing board members Strong, Scott, Lois Baines-Hunter and Yolanda Everett from office. Special elections to replace Strong and Scott will be held in November, per Perdue's order. The other seats will be decided through the elections scheduled to take place this year for them.

None of the nine people who were on the board in January is still in office.

"The fate of the Clayton County School System is now in the hands of the voters," said Gov. Perdue. "Through the elections to replace these four board members, they can send a clear signal that the kind of behavior that has led to this ruling and the system's loss of accreditation will not be tolerated. We can hope that this marks a new day for Clayton County, a time in which rebuilding can begin."

School District Spokesman Charles White said the school system, and the three remaining board members, Michael King, Alieka Anderson, and Trinia Garrett, will meet today, at 4 p.m., at the school system's central office in Jonesboro to figure out how they can hold board meetings with vacancies in two-thirds of the board's seats.

The board canceled an executive session scheduled for Thursday, which had been called to hold a student tribunal, because of the diminished number of board members. They also postponed their public participation meeting until Sept. 8, when the board is next scheduled to meet.

However, White called the board's situation "uncharted territory," and said he was not sure the board would even be able to meet on Sept. 8.

To see SACS' full report visit the Clayton News Daily at www.news-daily.com