By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue wants to help Clayton County Public Schools avoid a threatened loss of accreditation.
But if the Board of Education fails to make improvements quickly enough to avoid that dire sanction, he wants to give local voters a chance to remove board members from office.
Perdue announced Friday that he will submit legislation to the General Assembly that would automatically trigger a referendum to remove the board in any school district that loses accreditation.
"We're not trying to micromanage the school system," the governor said during a news conference at his Capitol office. "But we are discussing the most fundamental investment we can make in the future of our state. The students are our most important priority."
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) put the district on notice last week that it faces a loss of accreditation by Sept. 1, if Clayton schools don't make a series of improvements outlined in a report released by the association.
Among other things, the report detailed an atmosphere of strife among board members and irregularities in attendance and financial recordkeeping. It also questioned whether some of the board members actually live in the county, a legal requirement for election to the board.
Perdue outlined steps the state plans to take to help the district comply with the report's recommendations by the September deadline.
He named two members of the state Board of Education to serve as "special liaisons" to Clayton County schools. Brad Bryant, of DeKalb County, and James Bostic, Jr., of Atlanta, will work as volunteer advisors to help school administrators and board members comply with the association's directives.
Perdue said the two will update him regularly on the district's progress.
The governor said he also will have several state agencies conduct audits of various district functions.
The state auditor's office will review the school system's finances. The Governor's Office of Student Achievement will audit attendance records.
And Perdue is asking Secretary of State Karen Handel to audit the most recent Clayton school board elections, including whether candidates complied with the residency law.
The governor expressed optimism that the help the state is willing to give Clayton schools will help the system make the improvements the association called for in its report.
"These are well outlined, achievable steps," he said. "It is my expectation that these steps will be achieved."
But if the state's efforts fail to help the district maintain accreditation, the bill Perdue will offer would set a special election asking whether voters wish to remove the entire school board from office.
If the referendum passes, the state board then would appoint the new members of the Clayton board.
Perdue said he is responding to hundreds of phone calls to his office from concerned Clayton County residents asking the state to step in.
He said there is no provision in the law that would allow the state to take over the local schools.
Clayton students face substantial consequences, if the school system loses accreditation, including the loss of eligibility for HOPE scholarships.
However, if the association follows through with its threat, Perdue said the state should look for ways to address that issue.
"I wouldn't want students harmed because of the failures of adults," he said.