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Clayton community reacts to the SACS report

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Commissioner Wole Ralph called it a "very sad report."

Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas said he was "sick to my stomach."

Clayton County Education Association (CCEA) President Sid Chapman said he was "disappointed, but not surprised" by the news.

The reactions of county leaders, parents, teachers' rights advocates, board of education members and state legislators to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) recommendation that Clayton County schools lose their accreditation, as of Sept. 1, ranged from shock to disappointment to disgust to anger.

"If I had the jurisdiction, I would have to find that the school board has deprived all of the children of this county -- based on educational neglect," said Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske. "It's just been frustrating to me ... I interact with so many kids, who ask me 'Judge Teske, can you do anything to save our accreditation?' and I have to tell them - with frustration - that I can't do anything, and I don't have any jurisdiction."

The community members all said the school system, and board members, need to do whatever is necessary to protect the district's accreditation. District officials can either show cause for why the report does not show an accurate depiction of the school system, or spend the next seven and a half months implementing nine recommendations made by SACS officials.

On Friday, Dr. Mark Elgart, the president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, said part of the responsibility for making sure the school system retains its accreditation rests on the shoulders of the community. He also said the residents of Clayton County need to "encourage the school system to change."

When asked if he would recommend Clayton County to people with school-aged children, Elgart said, "Each family is going to have to make that decision themselves." He also said, "It is important to remember, as of today, the school system is still fully accredited."

Many people, like Teske, either deal with children, or work with areas of the county which are affected by the quality of the school system. In their eyes, failure to meet SACS recommendations for retaining accreditation is not an option.

"It's going to take all of us, together, to make this happen ... We have to decide how to come together," said Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro). Glanton said his reactions to the SACS report began with shock, and later progressed to "sadness and disappointment," and finally became wonderment as he pondered what the future holds for the school system, and the county as a whole.

One step toward retaining the district's accreditation is proposed legislation, which would establish an ethics council that would oversee the actions of board members and issue sanctions when violations have occurred.

"It's obvious from the SACS report [the board members] have been doing some things [they] shouldn't have been doing," Glanton said.

David Barton, the vice president of governmental affairs for the Metro South Association of Realtors, said the community needs to remain positive because the SACS recommendation is not a "doomsday situation" - yet.

"We're willing to roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes," Barton said. "All we know is what they [SACS] are saying now, so we need to move forward with that ... [This is a] golden opportunity to take back our county. I am hoping everyone will step up."

Ralph said the county's residents need to rally around school system officials, and the board members, as they work to get through this period. "This is bigger than any elected officials," Ralph said. "This is about what happens to our entire county. The loss of accreditation for Clayton County schools would be an incredible atrocity."

The reaction to the SACS report could reach all the way up to the Georgia Department of Education.

State Superintendent Kathy Cox, and other high ranking officials in the Department of Education, have also received a copy of the report, and they will be reading it in the coming days, said Department of Education spokesman Dana Tofig. One of the questions raised in the report deals with attendance reports. Attendance reports are used to determine how much money, per student, a school receives, and whether it meets one of the three indicators for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

"If there is anything we need to look at, we will certainly do so," Tofig said.

The reactions also came from board members on Friday, though. As Board Member Rod Johnson addressed the media at the school system's central office, he was solemn about the situation.

"We have to get back to the business of working for the children," Johnson said. "We need to get back on course."

Norreese Haynes, one of Johnson's fellow board members, had other things to say, however, when he issued a statement concerning the SACS report.

"The Mark Elgart-driven SACS report concerning the Clayton County Board of Education is a sham and a farce," Haynes said in his statement. "It is easy for [Dr.] Elgart to use his bully pulpit to beat up on a school system for working stiffs. Clayton County is an easy target to use to try to scare other school systems. After all, SACS needs a whipping child since it is a private organization and certainly not the only accrediting agency in town, nor the only one which qualifies students for the HOPE scholarship."

- Staff writers Joel Hall and Daniel Silliman contributed to this report.