By Curt Yeomans
Ericka Davis, chairperson of the Clayton County Board of Education, jokingly refers to 2007 as "a tale of two boards [of education]."
She explained that board members had begun to "gel" as a group during the spring, and "peace" existed within the nine-member board. By mid-July, the board approved a budget for the 2008 fiscal year, rolled back the millage rate from the maximum of 20 mills, and created two new policies protecting the rights of Clayton County educators.
The fall months were different, however. Board members had begun to openly criticize each other, and make public accusations of unethical behavior by the end of August. In late October, two board members, Norreese Haynes and Rod Johnson, got into a shouting match during a board meeting.
When asked if the board can regain a spirit of cooperation, though, Davis was doubtful.
"It is something I pray for every night, but I just don't know if it will happen," she said.
However, as 2008 begins, Davis said the board doesn't have a choice about learning to work together again.
It is currently being investigated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
It is the second SACS investigation of the board in five years, and a lawyer hired by the board to handle the investigation expects SACS to put the district on probation.
Some of the complaints under investigation involve warring board members. Johnson has complained about Haynes and board members Sandra Scott and Lois Baines-Hunter. Haynes and Scott, have countered with complaints against Johnson and Davis.
"The camaraderie has eroded a bit," Davis said. "Some board members have become focused on exposing the faults of their colleagues, rather than focusing on what's important -the children of this county... Some of them want to e-mail it [complaints] to the media. What good does that do? If you have information for SACS, give it to them when you sit down with the investigators."
A Clayton County grand jury criticism of a $10.2 million land purchase, and a $7.8 million site preparation contact for the land, was one reason why board members came together in the spring, Davis said. School system-authorized appraisals say the value of the land was between $7 million and $8 million - If the land was in perfect condition.
As a result of its investigation, the grand jury accused the board of poor stewardship when it came to handling taxpayer dollars.
"We were all focused on where the dollars were going, and how they were being spent in the spring, as a result of the land deal," Davis said. "Somewhere along the way, communication broke down. I can't explain it. You just wake up one day and everything is different."
Larry O'Keeffe, a board watcher and the father of a Morrow High School student, said he began to see a change "sometime in either May or June ." He began to see board members become verbally abusive toward each other and district staffers during meetings.
"You can't really pin it on any one triggering point," O'Keeffe said. "There just seemed to be a breakdown of trust between board members that needs to be re-established."
Board members have always been able to express themselves, said board member Scott. She was surprised by some of the actions in the later half of 2007, including Johnson's complaints to SACS and the state attorney general's office regarding her and Haynes.
"I never, in a million years, would have thought a board member would go to that extent," Scott said.
Since the news of the SACS probe, the public has begun to vent its frustration about the public fighting. Parents of Clayton County students voiced their displeasure during the public comments portions of the December and January board meetings.
"I think the public has made it clear that it is not interested in watching us fight," Davis said. "It has a negative effect. It sends the impression that we don't care about working for the children."
The public's perception of the board members can be changed by working together, instead of fighting each other in public, noted Scott. She also said board members have to show professionalism, integrity and honesty to each other at all times.
"I would like to see [differences worked out] behind the scenes, and not in the public," Scott said. "Take care of those problems in the back."