By Curt Yeomans
Members of the Clayton County Board of Education foresaw problems with Corrective Superintendent John Thompson's contract when they approved it in May, according to one of the former board members.
While his guaranteed, annual base salary of $285,000 drew no opposition, board members expressed concerns about the unique authority granted to Thompson before they approved the contract, and -- according to former board vice chairperson, Sandra Scott, they asked attorneys to remove those sections.
Now, months later, the granting of the special powers to Thompson is apparently a major reason why the school was stripped of its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) this week.
The contract, and Thompson's job title, were viewed by SACS as prime evidence that the school board is not yet fully functioning. SACS President Mark Elgart said Thursday there is a conflict between the board and staff members over whether Thompson is a "permanent," or "corrective" superintendent. The contract reads "The board employs Dr. John W. Thompson as Corrective Action Superintendent of Schools ..."
Beyond the title flap, one of the biggest obstacles to regaining accreditation is what Thompson's contract allows him to do as superintendent. Elgart said the contract violates state laws, and SACS' accreditation standards of governance and leadership. He said SACS' requirement for a fully functioning school board is not being met since the board has ceded so much of its authority to Thompson.
"We knew it was going to cause issues, but at the end of the day, they [the attorneys] left it in the contract, anyway," Scott said in an interview Friday. "We had lengthy discussions about it, and we agreed to go forward with it since those powers would have gone away on Sept. 1, and it would have reverted to a normal contract [if accreditation was retained]."
Thompson willing to revisit contract
"I don't have a problem with my contract, SACS has a problem with the contract," Thompson said, during a phone interview on Friday. "Whatever the problem is, the board and I are going to make sure it is fixed. If that includes my contract, then so be it."
Portions of Thompson's contract grant him "broad and unusual powers, discretion and authority." One of his powers is that he can "implement any lawful action for which board approval is not specifically required by law, regardless of any other board policy to the contrary."
One of SACS standards for school systems states that a school board "establishes and communicates policies and procedures that provide for the effective operation of the system." In the report created by members of SACS' review team, fears were expressed that the clause in Thompson's contract would encourage board members to bypass board policies.
"The power of the board comes from the board as a whole, and is exercised through the development of policies and procedures that detail the work of the board, superintendent and all employees," the report says. "On the surface, it is unfortunate that the clause sends a message to the board that in certain situations, policies can be ignored or circumvented ...
"One of the issues regarding accreditation is that the board must follow its policies and procedures in conducting their roles and responsibilities."
Thompson kept short the telephone interview with the Clayton News Daily, saying he was having phone difficulties and could not clearly hear the reporter's questions. At one point, he asked sharply: "Why do you want to do a story on my contract? You've already done a story on that."
In comparison to his predecessor, Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan, Thompson's contract stands out.
· He can hire, and retain "consultants, administrative staff and advisors that the superintendent, in his discretion, believes necessary or advisable to assist him in carrying out his duties."
· He accepts resignations on behalf of the board.
· Board members must get Thompson's permission to be on any property owned by the school system, including the district's Central Administration Complex, where the board's traditional meeting room is located, except to attend board or committee meetings, "ball games," public performances and other events, or as a parent, or guardian.
· The board also cannot reassign his duties without his consent, according to the contract.
SACS' Standards for Accreditation note that the superintendent of a school system is responsible for providing analysis and review of student performance and district effectiveness; creating a collaboration of stake holders to support the district's programs; giving direction, assistance and resources to make sure the district meets performance goals; making sure stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process; assessing community expectations, and implementing a personnel evaluation system which creates professional growth.
Former board member Scott, and Thompson, said it was their attorneys who negotiated the contract -- Richard Schwartz, who is Thompson's attorney, and Dorsey Hopson, the former general counsel for the school system.
Schwartz said the powers were given to the superintendent because the district is in an emergency situation. He said his client has never used the powers, despite SACS review team's claim Thompson used the powers on at least two occasions.
"The idea was so he could have the authority to do what needed to be done," Schwartz said. "Fortunately, the board cooperated with him and he never had to use those powers."
Schwartz said he has not talked to Thompson about the contract since Clayton County lost its accreditation. He declined to say whether he or Hopson suggested Thompson's "unusual powers" because the conversation took place during negotiations.
Hopson could not be reached for comment at a Memphis phone number listed for him, or by cell phone.
Meanwhile, the board cannot meet to redo Thompson's contract because there are only three people left on the nine-member body. Gov. Sonny Perdue issued an executive order on Thursday removing four members from office. The board needs a quorum of five to conduct business.
Friday afternoon, the remaining board members, along with school staffers, met with a representative of the Georgia School Boards Association to discuss ways to pick temporary replacements. Clayton School District Spokesman Charles White said the remaining board members can only appoint replacements for at least three former board members.
"We do not have a board which can conduct business at this time, because it does not have a quorum," said White.
Thompson said the quorum issue would cause a delay in looking at his contract. "We need to get a board together before we can do anything," he said.