By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Board of Education Chairperson Michelle Strong was thrust into the spotlight when she unexpectedly ascended to the board's top spot in April.
She became the board's interim chairperson following a tumultuous two months for the chairman position. Former Chairperson Ericka Davis resigned in mid-April, and her vice chairman, Eddie White, ascended to the top spot. Strong was elected by her colleagues to work with White as the new vice chairperson, but White was also gone by the end of the month.
Strong has been leading the board without a vice chairman since she took command of the school system's governing body. Over the past month, she and Corrective Superintendent John Thompson have held a series of public forums, and met with community liaisons, to discuss the school system's efforts to prevent a loss of accreditation.
"One of the challenges facing the board has been making sure we get the correct information to our constituents," said Strong in an e-mail interview on July 11. "This is [why] we [myself and Dr. Thompson] have been holding forums and communicating with the Key Communicators from the schools."
Under normal circumstances, Strong might have had an easier time as the chairperson. The board is not operating under normal circumstances, however. If the district cannot meet nine mandates for improvement by Sept. 1, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools will revoke the school system's accreditation.
The result has been a stressful experience for the chairperson, who also has two young children enrolled in the school system. "The biggest challenge for me personally is making sure I take time for myself and rest," Strong said. "I am very passionate about this situation and I think about it all the time. So taking a little time for me has not happened."
All of the work the school system, and the board, have put into resolving the accreditation crisis has been done with a mid-to-late-July deadline in mind. Thompson has been telling parents the district has accomplished at least 90 percent of the work needed to meet SACS' mandates.
SACS officials will visit the school system Aug. 14 and 15 to see if the board, and district officials, have made enough progress to keep accreditation. A Show Cause hearing is required to convince SACS officials that the accreditation should be retained.
A fully functioning board that has shed its past problems concerning board member conflicts and micromanagement of the school system is one of the things SACS officials want to see when they return next month.
Strong said the signs of board improvement over the last two and a half months include improved communication among board members and the public; adopting new policies to prevent another accreditation crisis, and a commitment to continuous training.
"The BOE is determined to do what is necessary to meet the SACS mandates," Strong said. "That has been evident by the meetings that we have had. We are working together in harmony ... Please understand I am not the only person stressed and trying to make sure the district makes it through this situation.
"The other BOE members are committed, and Dr. Thompson -- and the staff -- have been working endlessly to get things together for our Show Cause."
Strong's tenure as the board's leader has not been without its missteps, though. The board had to re-vote on Thompson's contract in April, because the meeting in which the contract was first approved was deemed illegal because the board had not yet accepted Eddie White's resignation. Therefore, Strong did not yet have the authority to call for a special meeting of the board.
On July 2, Strong announced she made a mistake by not excusing herself on June 30 from voting on a relative, who would have received a cost-of-living adjustment and a pay raise as part of the Fiscal Year 2009 budget. Another board member pointed out the error to Strong, and the board will re-vote on that relative during tonight's business meeting.
In training sessions, the Georgia School Boards Association offers to candidates for school boards, GSBA officials explain that it takes two years for a new school board member to fully understand how to do his or her job. Strong had only been on the board for 16 months before she became the Clayton County Board of Education's leader.
She also had only the two weeks of experience she gained as the board's vice chairman to fall back on when White's resignation thrust her into the board's center seat.
"The learning curve has been small and I have had to learn quickly," Strong said. "When I have made mistakes, I have done my best to correct them quickly. The great thing is that the BOE is a team, and if I miss something, a member of the team steps up to let me know and we make it right."
Strong has also had people aiming to take her down. There is an effort in her district to recall her from office. There are also four Jonesboro attorneys, and one retired teacher, who recently filed a complaint with Gov. Sonny Perdue. In the complaint, the board members are accused of several unethical actions.
However, Strong is singled out in the complaint for allegedly not filing closed meeting affidavits, which are required under the state's Open Meetings Act.
Perdue forwarded the complaint to the Governor's Office of State Administrative Hearings on July 2. If an OSAH judge decides the board did violate any state laws, Perdue could remove the entire board from office.
Strong deferred all comments about the complaint to Julie Lewis, the school system's legal counsel. Lewis told the Clayton News Daily on July 10 that Strong did sign the affidavits, which were required under the Open Meetings Act.
Strong said she has been re-evaluating her place on the board for a while, because of the stress she has been under as the board's chairperson. However, she adamantly stated she has not decided to follow the cue of previous chairpersons, and resign from office. Once SACS' Sept. 1 deadline passes, though, she will once again re-evaluate her situation and "make the best decision for me and my family."
Before she can perform a self-re-evaluation, though, she said she has to help the school system weather the accreditation storm. "At this point, I am focused on making sure we retain the accreditation," Strong said. "I am confident we will. I am focused on making sure we (the BOE) -- along with Dr. Thompson -- [are] in the community getting the correct information out to our parents."