By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Corrective Superintendent John Thompson called media reports about his decision to recall the diplomas of 2,600 graduates an attempt to "throw cold water on such a joyous celebration" of the graduation of the Class of 2008.
Thompson addressed the issue on Monday during the Board of Education's business meeting at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center. He continued to assert his claim that the diplomas were not legally valid, since they contained the signature of former Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan -- and not his.
New diplomas were ordered -- at no cost to the district -- and should arrive by the end of the month.
"I felt as the superintendent of the school system, I had to do what is right and not hand out the diplomas," Thompson said. "These students have fought through three or four superintendents, so I thought it was fair to honor them with a diploma that is correct. What does it matter if it costs $25,000, $50,000, or $1 million, if you are providing children with something that will last for a lifetime ...?
"If wanting to do the right thing for the children is wrong, then I don't want to be right."
Thompson has recently come under fire for both the diploma flap and a proposed policy change which would remove public comment from regular business meetings. To accommodate public input, a separate public-comment-only meeting would be held on the last Thursday of the month.
Thompson stressed that the original diplomas were not shredded, as had been initially reported. They are at the district's Central Administration Complex in Jonesboro, sitting in the office of Deputy Superintendent Judith Simmons. Thompson also said the graduates are welcome to chose which diploma they want.
"Any student who wants that diploma, instead of the new one we are ordering for them, is welcome to come by and pick it up," he said. "They just need to get a note from their principal, and then they can come by and pick up their diploma. They cannot have both diplomas, though. They can only have one or the other."
Charles White, a spokesman for the school system, said the new diplomas will be mailed to graduates using the addresses on file with the district. "We're going to do our best to follow up and make sure every senior receives his or her diploma in a timely manner," he said.
White also said the system is trying to get a discount on the mailing costs, but added that the district could still end up spending more than $1,000 to mail the diplomas. "If you round up the cost of postage to 50 cents, you're talking about spending $1,300," he said.
Despite the new information about the diplomas, the proposed policy change regarding public comment was the main issue brought up by citizens on Monday. "We have come to you several times to talk about the land deal, or the KAPLAN program and told you not to do it," said Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "You need the public comment section, but you've chosen not to listen to the public when they speak to you."
Thompson defended the plan by explaining several surrounding school systems do the same thing. He said giving the public its own meeting to address the board will help the community because there will be more time for public comment. "I want to give them more power," Thompson said. "By giving them an entire meeting to address the board, their voice would become more powerful."
Some of the people who spoke on Monday expressed their fear that the board was not doing anything to give the public more power, however. Several speakers were critical of the fact that they would still only have two minutes, and the board members would not respond to comments.
Thompson said it will be up to the board to decide whether or not speakers will be granted more speaking time, or whether or not board members will respond to citizen concerns.
To some speakers, though, the proposed change was the final straw. The district has been under heightened scrutiny since the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) began to investigate the board in December 2007. The accrediting agency has given the board until Sept. 1 to meet nine mandates for improvement.
"The list SACS gave you was not an optional to-do list," said Dean Gray. "If you think SACS is going to sign off on the accreditation, then you are delusional. They told you to not hire [Thompson], but you did it anyway. They told you to resign, but you refuse to do it."
Matthews and Jessie Goree, a school board candidate and mother of a North Clayton High School student, also questioned whether the board members are committed to fulfilling SACS' mandates -- if they are going to consider the policy change.
"On Feb. 15, SACS said the board does not foster effective communication with their stakeholders," Goree said. "Since March, we've only been able to spend five minutes addressing the board. One minute at the meeting in March, and two minutes each at the April and May board meetings ... We're too close to achieving our goal to take a step backward now."