SACS says Clayton's accreditation should be 'revoked'

Calls schools 'a ship without a rudder in dangerous waters.'

On Friday, Dr. Mark Elgart, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS CASI) announced his agency is recommending that the Clayton County School System's accreditation be "revoked" on Sept. 1.

"As of today," he said, "Clayton County schools do not meet our standards for accreditation."

Areas of concern outlined by Elgart included mistrust and fights among board members; the influence of outside groups, including local "teacher unions"; possibly falsified attendance records; a lack of fiscal responsibility; a lack of an effective ethics policy; insufficient training of board members; questions about the residency and eligibility of board members, and a lack of a permanent, experienced superintendent.

"The [investigation] team found evidence to support a conclusion that the effectiveness of the Clayton County Board of Education is fatally flawed," the report said.

Elgart put it a little more bluntly during a press conference, though. "I think - today - they [students] are receiving a compromised education in Clayton County," he said.

AdvancedEd, the nationwide parent organization of SACS CASI, will vote on accepting or rejecting the recommendation at its quarterly conference on March 15, in Chicago. Elgart said he believes AdvancedEd will "affirm the recommendation." If the school system loses it's accreditation, Clayton students will not be eligible for the HOPE scholarship, and colleges with "highly competitive applicant pools" will likely see students from the district as not being competitive enough to merit admission.

"This [recommendation] is difficult in that you know what the impact of this will be on the students," said Elgart. "On the other hand, it is not difficult, because we believe this is a necessary step to encourage change in a positive way."

SACS previously investigated the Clayton school system in 2003 because of allegations of micromanagment. The district was placed on probation following that investigation. If the school system loses its accreditation this time, Elgart said it would be the first time a system in Georgia has suffered such a fate.

He also said 95 percent of all public and private schools in metro Atlanta are accredited by SACS. Statewide, 90 percent of all schools are accredited by the agency.

The detailed and blistering report held out one, last hope that the school system could avoid losing its accredtitation. But that hope is razor-thin. The school system can ask for a "Show Cause" hearing, in which it proves that the conclusions of the investigation and the report's findings are wrong. Or, it can prove that it has fixed all of the stated problems and brought itself into compliance with SACS' standards before Sept. 1. An extremely tall order.

The report said the nine actions which need to take place by Sept. 1 to preserve the district's accreditation include:

· "Establish a governing board that is capable of fulfilling its roles and responsibilities." When SACS investigators conducted its interviews in January, seven board members called the relationship among members "dysfunctional." Copies of minutes from board meetings also showed public fights between members. Elgart said the interviews and documents showed there is "mistrust" between board members. He added the fact that five board members filed complaints with SACS - against other members - demonstrates the dysfunctional nature of the board.

· "Remove the influence of outside groups/individuals that are disruptive to the work of the school district." The report said board members are being unduly influenced by outside organizations, such as teachers unions. In one case, board member Norreese Haynes is also the executive director of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators, which is a teacher's rights organization that keeps a "Needs Improvement" list of administrators from across the state on its web site. The report said Haynes (though not named) sent an e-mail to Clayton County Public Schools staff members, through the district's e-mail system, demanding the "removal of a number of administrative staff, principals and most notably fellow board members." The report also said "it became increasingly clear that an elusive, negative, outside, external force has not only permeated a significant segment of the Board of Education, but has also infiltrated key leadership positions within the school district.

· "Enact and commit to an ethics policy that governs the actions and work of the members of the Board of Education and staff including appropriate steps when said policy is violated." The SACS investigative team found "substantial evidence" the board members are not following their own ethics policy, and are not taking action to stop violations from occurring. The report said board members were trying to get members of the district's staff to "circumvent current policies." The report said there has been a problem of board members publicly, and privately, mistreating staff members. The report also said the board's behavior is "having a negative effect upon the ability of the school district to retain qualified professional and support staff."

· "Implement a comprehensive review of board policies that includes training for board members on the purpose and expectations of said policies." Elgart said board members do not understand what their roles are, despite attending new member training when they join the board, and subsequent training sessions. The report said board members ignore policies whenever those rules "interfere with their individual interests."

· "Conduct a full, forensic audit of financials by an independent, certified accounting firm and take appropriate steps to address the findings of such an audit." There were numerous allegations made to SACS about "financial fidelity," according to the report. One example listed in the report was a September 2006 land purchase of 155 acres of land in Riverdale for $10.2 million when the district's own appraisals showed the land was only worth $8 million. The report said the board members used a May 2007 Grand Jury presentment, which said the board had not been good stewards of taxpayer dollars, as an "excuse to circumvent the superintendent and staff members from exercising their duties and responsibilities and to intensify the board's micromanagement of the school district." Other examples were the awarding of contracts; the district's hiring practices; the bid process for privatizing alternative education; and dropping the KAPLAN program in spite of having a contractual obligation to pay for the third, and final, year of the contract. Elgart said there was data which showed the KAPLAN program was having a positive impact on learning in the county.

The report also said there is a problem with nepotism within the school system, including board members voting on the "hiring, compensation and benefits of employees, even when they have a direct conflict of interest."

Another financial issue was raised in the report included hotel charges and room service incurred by board member Lois Baines-Hunter (although the report did not identify her by name), during a conference in Atlanta. The report said this board member told investigators she stayed at the hotel because of "car troubles," despite telling the Clayton News Daily, on Dec. 5, 2007, she opted to stay at the hotel because of heavy traffic in the city that day. The report also said she told investigators she ordered room service because it was "late at night and the hotel was the only place to get food at said time." The report, however, said the receipt for the room service shows the order was placed at 6:32 p.m., and "appears to be a meal for more than one person."

· "Conduct a comprehensive audit of student attendance records and take appropriate steps to ensure that attendance records are accurate and meet legal requirements." The report said there is evidence, from board meeting minutes, that some, or all, school attendance records "are not complete or accurate." It also said board and staff members expressed concerns that attendance records had been altered "to avoid legal actions or sanctions." Attendance records are used for several purposes, including determining how much federal money a school will receive. Elgart said the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education has been in touch with SACS concerning some of these allegations, and was waiting to see the agency's report. Elgart was not sure if the inspector general was going to launch an investigation of the school system, though. David Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, could not immediately answer questions about the matter on Friday.

· "Ensure that each member of the board is a legal resident of the county and is eligible to hold the elected seat on the board." The report said the investigation raised significant questions whether certain board members meet the residency requirements. "If there is evidence that any member of the board does not meet the residency requirement, the individual should be removed from the board immediately and the legal process to replace said board member should be initiated," the report said. When Elgart was asked about this section of the report, he said "there are a number of questions about the eligibility of every board member to serve on the board."

· "Secure the services of outside consultant(s) with expertise in conflict resolution, governance and organizational effectiveness." The report called the current operational status of the board and school system a "state of chaos," and said the district lacks the ability to address the challenge. "It is imperative that outside professional support be secured, and maintained, for a prolonged period of time," the report said.

· "Appoint a permanent superintendent with the experience and expertise to lead the school district and establish the proper conditions for effectiveness." The school system has been without a permanent superintendent since Dr. Barbara Pulliam resigned on July 23, 2007. Dr. Gloria Duncan has served as the district's interim superintendent since then. The board is currently expected to receive a short list of candidates for the permanent superintendent position from an executive search firm in April. The SACS report said hiring a permanent superintendent is "the first step to renewal and transformation of the school district."

While SACS is recommending a loss of accreditation, its president isn't closing the door on Clayton schools all together. "Each of these recommendations are achievable, and we selected the [Sept. 1] date with that in mind," Elgart said. "The question is do they have the will to meet that challenge."

Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan, who held her own press conference on Friday to address the SACS report, said the school system will do whatever steps are necessary to keep the district's accreditation after Sept. 1. She said the district will make every effort to meet all nine recommendations from SACS.

"We are confident that the Clayton County School System will be in full compliance with SACS' standards of accreditation on Sept. 1," she said.