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School system reassures community about accreditation status

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

More than 200 Clayton County parents got to see Friday why school system officials are confident the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) will not revoke the district's accreditation.

The accrediting agency has said it will revoke the district's accreditation on Sept. 1, if it can not show compliance with nine mandates for improvement.

A SACS review team will visit the district on Aug. 14 and 15, to inquire about the district's progress, and it will make a decision in late August, before the Sept. 1 deadline, according to SACS President Mark Elgart.

Corrective Superintendent John Thompson let the public hear the district's long promised response to SACS' mandates on Friday during a called Board of Education meeting at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center. The board is scheduled to vote on accepting the response on Monday, during its work session at the Performing Arts Center.

"This is going to be the night Clayton County took back its school system," Thompson said.

The document Thompson is submitting includes his overview of the response, policy revisions and adoptions, feedback from stakeholders, supporting documents, and a closing appeal to retain the accreditation.

Documented evidence to show the district has complied with each of the nine mandates also will be in the response. Thompson said there are 2,000 pages of evidence in two, full, three-ring binders.

The district's evidence includes agendas, minutes and videotapes of board meetings and training sessions; a new state law that established an ethics commission for the board; the recently revised public participation which established a separate public input meeting; several revised policies; residency affidavits signed by board members; a residency investigation that was conducted by the secretary of state's office; press releases, and the results of financial and attendance audits.

Thompson explained the attendance records mandate is the result of SACS receiving an unsigned complaint, which alleged school administrators were withdrawing students right before standardized tests were administered. The financial audit was focused on purchasing practices, contracts and bidding, employee compensation, information technology, and a controversial 2006 land purchase.

Thompson said the financial and attendance audits showed no signs of misconduct, but said some issues were discovered during the attendance audit.

"The auditors found attendance for the day was being taken during second period," Thompson said. "That says to these kids its OK to come to school two hours late ... That's going to change. If you're not in school by 8:15 [a.m.], then you are going to be counted as tardy."

Thompson also took a hardline stance against truancy, and told the audience to call the school system if they see children in the streets when they should be in school.

In addition to the evidence, letters of recommendation from several high profile community members and elected officials, such as state Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) and the mayors of Clayton County's six cities, also will be included.

Many at the meeting, including parents who spent the last five and a half months worrying about the educational futures of their children, seemed impressed.

"I felt very encouraged about what I saw and heard," said Lynn Graves, a 16-year resident of Rex, with a rising senior and a rising freshman at Morrow High School. "I wanted to see progress, and I believe that is what they have done," she said,echoing the sentiments of many parents in attendance.

When she heard about SACS' decision in February, Graves said she felt panic and fear. "It was a sense of 'What am I going to do?'" she said. "I decided to take a stand and I got involved. I went to all of the forums and I educated myself on what a loss of accreditation would mean for my children... I wasn't going to move my children when they've grown up here."

Sid Chapman, president of the Clayton County Education Association (FF), said he also felt the school system was "headed in the right direction," but he said the school board still needs to be watched closely.

"We just have to keep an eye on [mandate No. 2, dealing with outside influences] and make sure they do not infringe on a teacher's right of association," Chapman said.