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Thompson hired personal attorney
to handle accreditation issues

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Corrective Superintendent John Thompson hired another member of his personal inner circle last month to help save the school system's accreditation -- Richard Schwartz, the North Carolina attorney who negotiated Thompson's contract to lead Clayton County Schools.

He replaced Glenn Brock, the special attorney who was hired by the board of education in December 2007 to deal with the Southern Association of Colleges and School's (SACS) investigation of the school system. The school system has to meet nine mandates for improvement by Sept. 1, or it will lose its accreditation.

Schwartz, who also negotiated Thompson's contract to lead the school system in Pittsburgh, Pa., was brought in as part of Thompson's transition advisory team in early May, shortly after the new superintendent took charge of the school system. The attorney was soon hired to work specifically on the accreditation issue.

The school system is paying Schwartz a $3,000 retainer, and $210 an hour, plus expenses.

Thompson defended the hiring by saying Brock was paid as much as $140,000, while Schwartz's fees have, so far, totaled "less than $50,000... "When I first came to the district, one attorney had already left, and the other one was about to leave me, so I had to go find an attorney," said Thompson on Saturday, during a telephone interview. "I had to have someone I could trust, and I already knew him pretty well ... He researched the district and its problems prior to my arrival, so he was familiar with the accreditation situation.

"My hiring him allowed the district to save time and money, and keep focused on what we need to do to resolve this situation."

Schwartz joins Deputy Superintendent Judith Simmons, one of Thompson's colleagues from Pittsburgh, as two members of the superintendent's inner circle, whom he brought to Clayton County.

Simmons is being paid $167,627 per year.

Thompson could still bring in more of his close associates to help run the school system. The board approved the superintendent's request to add a chief operations officer position, with a $154,371 annual salary, to the fiscal year 2009 budget.

The superintendent also has to find a new chief financial officer to replace Theresa McDugald, who left the district in April to take a similar position with the Fulton County School System.

On the SACS issue, Schwartz said he sent a letter to officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) late last week, notifying the accrediting agency that a request for a "show cause" hearing to save the district's accreditation will be sent by the end of July. He said he will not send the letter before July 16.

"The [school board] elections are on July 15, and I don't want to send that letter before the election takes place," Schwartz said.

The attorney said the school system is awaiting the results of several audits, which looked at district finances and attendance records.

He said the school system will look at the results of those audits and make changes where they are needed. He was optimistic about the district's chances of retaining accreditation.

"We would like to think SACS has no intention of intentionally harming the children of Clayton County," Schwartz said. "We believe they truly want to see things cleaned up in the school system, and they will be hard pressed to argue things have not been cleaned up, once they receive our report."

As a result of Schwartz's work, Thompson received a 14-month contract from the Clayton County Board of Education, which guarantees the school chief a base salary of $285,000 per year, a $2,000 per month living allowance, and access to a car - and a body guard, if he wants one.

Hours before Thompson talked to the Clayton News Daily about Schwartz, the superintendent and Board of Education Chairperson Michelle Strong addressed more than 200 parents at Lovejoy High School to outline progress being made to save the district's accreditation.

The superintendent did not tell parents about Schwartz's work on the accreditation issue during the meeting, though. In fact, Julie Lewis, the school system's recently hired general counsel, was the only attorney Thompson mentioned during the meeting.