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Most welcome governor's plan to help schools

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Morrow High School parent, Larry O'Keeffe, was eager to hear what Gov. Sonny Perdue had to say about Clayton County Public Schools' accreditation.

O'Keeffe was one of about 100 parents, elected officials, and business professionals who met in the Education Center of Southern Regional Hospital on Friday to discuss the need for a unified effort to save the district's accreditation.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) has threatened to revoke accreditation for the district because of micromanagement, mishandling of finances and unethical behavior by members of the board of education. It is the second time in five years that SACS has decided to take action against the school system.

Perdue offered to help the 52, 805-student school system 30 minutes after the Clayton County community began to gather.

He said he would send two members of the State Board of Education to assist the Clayton School System in complying with SACS' demands. He also would have appropriate state agences audit the school system's finances and attendance record-keeping, and would ask the secretary of state to review the county's last school board election to see if all candidates actually met the requirements for election.

If all of that fails, and the system's accreditation is revoked, the governor said he would have in place a bill that would allow a referendum, so Clayton voters could opt to remove the entire school board and the State Board of Education would appoint a new local board.

O'Keeffe greeted Perdue's involvement in the school crisis with mixed feelings. "I welcome the assistance the state is going to provide in answering the criteria SACS has given us," O'Keeffe said. "I think his call for legislation is a good idea. However, I want us to never lose accreditation. I want to be able to show SACS there is cause to retain it."

The group at Southern Regional included -- among others -- Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell and Commissioners Sonna Singleton, Virginia Burton Gray, and Michael Edmondson; State Reps. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) and Wade Starr (D-Fayette); State Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale); Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Lacey Ekberg, Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors Chairman Geoff Fulton and Chairman-Elect Mike Vigil; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Program Manager Tracy Gilbert; school system attorneys Dorsey Hopson and Glenn Brock; and Clayton News Daily Publisher Bonnie Pratt, who is also on the Chamber's Board of Directors.

"September 1 will be here before we know it," said Seay, a former school board member (from 1993 to 2000.) "Let's see if we can erase it down to four or five things, and alleviate some of the tension ... We need to keep the focus on the nine things that SACS said need to be addressed."

The governor's offer of help, however, has not provided what many thought it would.

Chairman Bell said he was disappointed the governor made suggestions without consulting local officials. He believes action needs to be taken, but he wishes the county's leaders had more of a voice in the process. "The people of Clayton County are better than that," Bell said.

Rep. Glanton said he is "grateful" to hear Perdue offering support. He urged a high level of cooperation, and communication, so retention of accreditation can be achieved.

The community, as well as district officials, will hopefully be open to the "advice and guidance of those appointed, and provided, by the governor," Glanton said.

"We want to stand up and help you shoulder the burden of addressing this issue," said Kevorez Hartwell, a Jonesboro High School junior, who was among the group of 100. "It's not just everyone else, it's us too," she continued as the other participants erupted into thunderous applause.

Bob Hartley, the chairman of the Concerned Citizens Coalition, said the governor sends "a powerful message" to board members and lets them know the people will not tolerate continued misbehavior."Any time any message comes out of the Governor's office, it's a good thing," he said. "We hope SACS hears this and takes it into consideration when making a decision about our accreditation."

"I know that our students, parents, school system staff and members of our community have made requests for his intervention and I, for one, am grateful for it," said Ericka Davis, chairperson of the county's school board. "I also wholeheartedly support the governor's legislation for a referendum to remove a school board, if its accreditation is lost. While our SACS report indicates that not all of our board members failed to comply with school board policy and SACS standards, the reality is that with any board, the actions of some affect the public trust of the entire board," Davis added.

Dr. Gloria Duncan, the school system's interim superintendent, released a statement offering her views on the turn of events, however. "We are currently in communication with the governor's office and in the process of reviewing the information," Duncan said. "Our primary goal is to educate the children in our school district and to maintain accreditation. We appreciate all efforts to move this process forward, so that we can demonstrate full compliance for all SACS standards."

Earlier on Friday, Rep. Glanton was one of five representatives who sponsored House Bill 1302, which would create an ethics commission to oversee the board of education. Reps. Starr, Darryl Jordan (D-Riverdale), Celeste Johnson (D-Jonesboro), and Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta) also sponsored the bill. Glanton said Rep. Joe Heckstall (D-East Point) is also in support of the legislation, but was not present for the signing of the bill.

The bill outlines 17 actions which board members would be forbidden from engaging in, including: Engaging in private employment that presents a conflict of interest or impairs the board member's judgment; disclosing information from closed meetings, such as executive sessions; representing a private interest in proceedings against the district; voting on, negotiating with or contacting a business when he or she has a financial interest in the company; soliciting or accepting gifts, such as discounts, meals or lodging which exceed $50; advertising professional services to district employees; using school system resources for "personal or commercial enterprise;" voting or participating, in any way, in the appointment or promotion of a relative or someone whose employment would financially benefit the board member; having a personal interest in school real estate, textbooks, or other school materials, or selling those items to the district; using school system property for personal gain; participating in discussions of matters which would create a conflict of interest, or soliciting district employees to obtain membership in any professional organization or labor union.

The legislation would also require board members to disclose any financial interest related to a matter which comes before the board.

- Dave Williams and Joel Hall contributed to this article