By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Corrective Superintendent John Thompson was scheduled to speak to the Clayton County Rotary Club on Wednesday about the current status of the school system, but his remarks were focused more on the low number of people who voted in the primary elections.
Only 21 percent of Clayton County's 136,903 registered voters participated in the primaries, according to officials from the Clayton County Board of Elections.
At a time when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools [SACS] is planning to revoke the school system's accreditation because of the actions of current board members, Thompson said he expected more parents would go to the polls and make their voices heard. SACS will take away the accreditation if nine mandates for improvement are not met by Sept. 1.
"I am devastated about the low number of people who voted in the elections," Thompson said. "What are they trying to tell us -- and the 53,000 students who attend Clayton County schools? If you don't step up and exert your interest, you can't expect anything but more of the same."
Seven of the nine board seats were up for grabs on Tuesday, but the occupants of only two of those seats were selected. The races for five board seats (Districts 2,3,4,5 and 6) are heading to an Aug. 5 run-off election date.
School teacher Alieka Anderson won the District 8 nonpartisan special election, and Trinia Garrett, a cosmetologist and founder of Putting the Past Behind Us Wish foundation, won the District 7 Democratic primary. Garrett will not face any opposition in the November general election.
SACS' first mandate for the school system was to "Establish a governing board that is capable of fulfilling its roles and responsibilities."
"The jury is still out on the board you sent us yesterday [Tuesday]," said Thompson to the Rotarians. "They may turn out to be the right choices."
Thompson said he was particularly disappointed to see a low voter turnout in light of the strong feeling parents have expressed about the district's accreditation crisis. He said "accreditation has been the buzz word" around the county since before he was hired by the school board in April. He extended his comments by addressing the community's lack of support for the sitting board members.
"This community has dumped them," The superintendent said. "They could have walked on water, but it wouldn't have been enough for the community, because this board did it -- and this board is tainted in the eyes of the community."
Thompson also told the Rotarians the district has met all of SACS' nine mandates for the improvement. He said the final pieces were a forensic audit of the school system, and an audit of student attendance records. The superintendent said the district received preliminary reports from the auditors on Wednesday. "If SACS were to walk in this room right now, we could show cause [to keep the accreditation]," Thompson said.
The superintendent also said he would like to ask next year for another Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), which would be the school system's fourth SPLOST, if approved by the voters of Clayton County.
He said the SPLOST would pay for the construction for a new alternative school to replace the existing facility in Jonesboro; a performing arts school; upgrades to the existing Clayton County Performing Arts Center, and a career development school.
Tom Mertl, the immediate past president of the Clayton County Rotary Club, said he was encouraged by Thompson's assertion that the district has met SACS' mandates, but he also shared the superintendent's disappointment over the low voter turnout in the primary elections.
Mertl said he believed the large number of candidates, 31 people seeking school board seats alone, was too overwhelming for voters to deal with.
"I thought as hot as the issues were, we'd see a huge turnout at the polls," Mertl said. "I think part of it had to do with the large number of candidates on the ballot. With so many candidates, how do you wade through all of that?"