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BOE chair offers views on school troubles

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Board of Education Chairperson Ericka Davis believes the school system is currently at a "cross roads," the genesis of which was present long before the system's accreditation came under scrutiny the first time (five years ago.)

The situation has gained even more urgency now that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is investigating the system again -- and again, the district's accreditation hangs in the balance.

She says critical decisions need to be made about the district's future, but problems being uncovered by SACS investigators are going to take time to remedy.

Over the last decade, the system has struggled to face the challenges of ever-changing demographics, communications issues between the board and district officials, constant changes in leadership, board members not always obeying their own policies, re-organizing employee salaries that were "all over the map," and parents preferring to send their children to charter schools instead of traditional schools.

"We don't know what to do," Davis says. "There are problems here. Part of it is an organizational culture that I think is reluctant to embrace change ... We are a system that is unlike other systems, which have [accepted] regular change."

Change will likely be forced upon the school system in the near future, though.

Last week, a team of SACS investigators raised several concerns about the "health" of Clayton County schools after completing a two-day visit to the district. The investigators were sent to look into allegations of micromanagement, unethical behavior and misuse of district funds by members of the board of education.

They came away, however, with a different view of the situation: Dr. Mark Elgart, president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, said the team was concerned that the school system's problems run deeper than originally believed, that the system, as a whole -- and not just board members -- is not meeting several of SACS' standards for accreditation.

As a result, the school system is facing the prospect of losing its accreditation or being put on probation again.

Davis says the symptoms have been present, and visible, all along, though. She believes the district was not prepared for a demographic change which has occurred over the last 10 years, and officials have been trying to play "catch-up" ever since.

African Americans made up 51.6 percent of the students, Hispanics were 7.5 percent, and Caucasians were 37.9 percent of Clayton County's population in 2000, according to the United States Census Bureau. The bureau's 2006 estimates listed the break down as 62.1 percent African American, 11.3 percent Hispanic, and 23.5 percent Caucasian.

Additionally, the percentage of students from "economically disadvantaged" families went from 67 percent during the 2004-2005 school year, to 74 percent during the 2006-2007 school year, according to data from the Georgia Department of Education.

The number of "Title I" schools, where the majority of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, went from 33 schools during the 2004-2005 school year, to 47 during the 2006-2007 school year.

The lack of preparation for these profound changes, Davis says, has resulted in struggles to address the issues of classroom achievement, and discipline. Board members, administrators and teachers have had to adjust to more cultural diversity in the classrooms, specifically growing Hispanic and Asian populations. There are now more than 60 dialects spoken in the schools.

She says there has been resistance to efforts to adapt the district to meet the needs of modern students. Davis offers the resistance of teachers to accept the KAPLAN program, which provided lesson plans to the educators, as an example. Leaders of local educator groups denounced the lesson plans as "scripts," and said the program "stifled creativity" in the classrooms.

"If you have an organization where you have people who have been around for a long time, it can be difficult to continually see progress," Davis says. "That's not to disparage seniority in the organization, because you need people like that for historical reference. When you have people at top levels, who have been there for 25 to 30 years, they get used to doing things a certain way ...

"Over time, not embracing change can stagnate the success of the organization, though."

Davis admits the board has had it's own problems, as well. In recent months, board members have engaged in verbal assaults against one another in public. The board has also had to deal with the allegations of micromanagement, which SACS officials have investigated twice since 2003. Revisions to policies to make sure board members cannot interfere with the day-to-day operations of the district are being considered.

Members of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation are currently working on a bill, which would establish an ethics commission that would review board member behavior. It would also issue sanctions, ranging from censure to removal from office, to wayward board members. The legislation was requested by board members and a group of 25 Clayton County residents.

"We have to make sure outside forces, who have their agendas other than the welfare of the students, are not influencing the affairs of the district," Davis says.

While the symptoms of large-scale problems have been showing up over the last decade, they are not limited to a demographic shift in the county's population, Davis says. Other signs of these problems, include:

· Parents opting to take advantage of school choice rather than letting their child stay in his or her assigned school.

· Disorganized compensation scales for district employees.

· A controversial purchase of 155-acres of land in Riverdale for $10.2 million.

· A communication gap between district officials and the board of education.

Davis believes it is time for the district's leaders to take a long look at what the problems are, and how they can be addressed. One of her suggestions is to have a forensic audit of the entire school system performed. The audit would be a detailed look at school system operations, how contracts are negotiated, and hiring practices. It would also identify problems areas for the district.

"That would give us a clear-cut determination of what is working and what isn't working," she says.

Davis says it will take 12 years of stable leadership to solve these issues. There have been five superintendents and interim superintendents since 1996. The board is currently searching for a new superintendent, but Davis is not worried about the district's woes scaring off candidates.

"I think it's going to help our search actually," she says. "There are a lot of up-and-coming superintendent candidates out there, who want a challenge like this. If you can turn this district around, you can really make a name for yourself."

Davis has spent a lot of time over the last six months pondering a possible leadership change in the district -- whether she should continue as the board of education's chairperson. Since June 2007, she has asked herself if every decision she has made has been in the best interest of students. She has also been asking herself if she's done all she can do as the board's chairperson.

"There's a point where you have to say to yourself, 'Is there anything else I can do?' and start having serious conversations about what will work best for everyone," she says.

"There's a point where you have to decide whether or not you should step down, and that's utmost in my mind these days."