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SACS investigation puts teachers on edge

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Some local teachers are feeling uneasy about a second investigation of the Clayton County Board of Education by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in five years.

The SACS investigation team will visit the district on Wednesday and Thursday, to conduct interviews with board members, Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan, staff members and members of the community. The investigators are probing allegations of micromanagement, unethical behavior and misuse of district funds by members of the board.

A similar investigation by SACS in 2003 resulted in a one-year probation for Clayton County schools. In 2004, the accrediting agency gave the district a one-year extension to correct problems, and the system was removed from probation in June 2005.

The lawyer handling the new SACS investigation for the district recently told the board to expect another period of probation.

"It's a very unstable situation right now," said Sid Chapman, the president of the Clayton County Education Association. "There's a lot of uncertainty and people just don't know what to do yet."

There was an exodus of teachers after the first SACS investigation in 2003, and Chapman is concerned it could happen again.

Teachers are bothered by rumors they will lose their retirement benefits and eligibility for pay raises, if the school system loses its accreditation. However, Chapman said he has acted to dispel those rumors. He sent out a flyer before Christmas from the Georgia Association of Educators, to the 2,800 members of CCEA, to dispel the rumors.

Despite CCEA's efforts , Chapman explained, the organization is still receiving calls and e-mails from concerned teachers who did not receive his letter.

"The most important reason is for the sake of continuity, for the sake of the children," Chapman said. "The children are already going to suffer if the district loses its accreditation. Having more inexperienced teachers in the classrooms is only going to hurt them [students] even more."

Chapman also believes the district needs to address the SACS issue with the teachers so fears can be erased. "The interim superintendent must do all she can to make sure teachers understand they are not in danger," he said. "Maybe it's time she held another assembly, so she can address this issue with the teachers."

Ericka Davis, the chairperson of the Clayton County Board of Education, hopes teachers will not leave the district because of the latest SACS investigation. While Davis is the board's leader, she is also the mother of a Clayton County school student. She acknowledged the board looks bad because of the investigation, but added she still has faith in the school system.

"I know we have some good teachers in this district," Davis said. "I trust them with my child, and with everyone else's children."

A 2006 teacher retention plan said nearly 2,000 teachers left the school system between 2003, and 2005. Some of the reasons given for the departures were poor preparation for teachers, poor working conditions, poor curricular guidance, a "lack of discipline support," and lower pay than teachers in neighboring school systems.

The school system adjusted salaries and went from sixth among the largest school districts (Clayton, Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett, and DeKalb counties, and the city of Atlanta) in starting-teacher pay, to being third.

The plan also cited the probation from SACS and the dismissal of former superintendent, Dan Colwell, in 2003, as two issues recruiters for the district had to overcome when they were seeking new teachers.

"It [SACS] was the single-most reason people left the school system," Chapman said. "It was obvious that people were leaving because of that, but not everyone was writing it down when they gave their reasons for leaving."

Dr. John Trotter, the president of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators (MACE), disagrees. Trotter said he has not received a lot of phone calls from teachers about the SACS investigation. He also said a "steady exodus" of teachers from the district has been going on since the late 1990s.

Discipline issues are the main reasons why teachers are leaving Clayton County schools, according to Trotter. Both Chapman and Trotter agree that the level of support offered to teachers will be the deciding factor, if a teacher is considering a move to another district.

"The question is, will the administration of these schools support their teachers when students defy -- and in some cases -- curse out or physically assault them?" Trotter said.