By Curt Yeomans
"All nine must go."
"Get right or get out."
"Let's keep HOPE [scholarships] alive."
More than 500 Clayton County residents, and a handful of Atlanta residents, chanted those slogans as they marched down Lake Harbin Road on Saturday. The marchers called for the resignations of all nine members of the Clayton County Board of Education. It was organized by the 2,714-member Concerned Citizens Coalition.
"If Clayton County Public Schools loses its accreditation, it will be no more valid than the Bob Hartley Institute of Technology," said Bob Hartley, chairman of the Concerned Citizens Coalition, to the protesters, after they arrived at the end of the march's route on Hwy. 42 in Rex.
"We can no longer afford to be passive participants in the politics of Clayton County."
The protesters demonstrated that they are tired of behavior which has gotten the school system into trouble with its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), twice in the last five years.
In February, SACS recommended revoking the district's accreditation, largely because of alleged micromanagement, unethical behavior and misuse of district funds by members of the board of education.
Vernetta Reeves, whose daughters attend Jonesboro middle and high schools, said her comfort level with the board is "not good" right now. "You see all of these personality conflicts, and it looks like they [board members] don't even care about the students," Reeves said.
Anthony Williams, chairman of Diverse and Dedicated Support (D.A.D.S.), a civic group that does volunteer work in the schools, said there are some good people on the board, but the will of the people involved in the efforts to force change on the school board must prevail.
He stressed the idea of the community being united in its pressure to force resignations from board members. "If we stay together, we will not be defeated," Williams said. "If the majority of us say they all must go, then they all must go."
While the possible loss of accreditation has local residents upset with the board, some of the most vocal people at Saturday's march were Clayton County students, who are scheduled to graduate in 2009. If the school system loses accreditation, those students will not be eligible to receive the HOPE scholarship, and colleges with competitive applicant pools will be reluctant to accept the graduating seniors.
The students were at the forefront of the march, leading parents and community members down Lake Harbin Road. As they crossed intersections, people waiting in their cars for the marchers to pass, got out and began to applaud the students.
"It's overwhelming that we have worked this hard, come this far, and in the end, it may not mean a thing," said Josh Penny, 16, a junior at Jonesboro High School, and president of the Clayton Students Coalition.
Another student, Morrow High School junior, Marcel Smith, founded the group Concerned Class of 2009 at his school. Penny and Smith said more students would have attended the march, but many juniors were taking the SAT on Saturday. "We feel we've worked through three hard years of high school, and going into our senior year, we find out it's all in vain, because colleges may not want us," Smith said.
Vernetta Reeves marched with both of her daughters to protest the board's actions. Her younger daughter, Kenisha, a seventh-grader at Jonesboro Middle School, marched in a graduation cap and gown while holding a sign which said, "No accreditation means no future." Kenisha will be a part of the Jonesboro High School Class of 2013.
"It's going to affect her as well," Vernetta Reeves said. "Even if they lose accreditation and gain it back before she graduates, the impact [of an accreditation loss] will be colleges are going to look at these kids, and still see [that] the school system lost it's accreditation. This is national news. Everybody knows we may lose our accreditation. Where [Kenisha] can go to college could be affected."
Also on Saturday, Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell told the Clayton News-Daily he wants the board of education to remove board member Norreese Haynes from his seat at tonight's board meeting. Bell had asked the Clayton County Police Department to investigate the residencies of all nine board members after the SACS report came out.
Haynes claimed 2722 Starr Rd., Morrow, was his legal residence when he ran for the seat in 2006, but admitted on Friday he has also been renting an apartment in Marietta. Haynes claims the Marietta apartment is for "school purposes" only while he attends classes at the University of Phoenix.
Bell said investigators looked at 15 items for each board member, including personal identification, voter registration records, qualifying statement, oath of office, driver's license records and intelligence database reports.
"Per our investigation, he is clearly not a legal resident of Clayton County, and therefore cannot legally serve on the school board," Bell said. "The other board members have it within their power, per their attorney, to remove him and should do it immediately...
"Beyond the residency issue, the facts and circumstances surrounding Mr. Haynes' recent arrest raise grave, grave questions about his fitness to serve on the county board of education, or to serve the children of Clayton County ... The board can either send a positive message [to SACS and the residents of Clayton County] by removing Norreese Haynes [tonight], or a negative one by doing nothing."
During Saturday's march, the Clayton County Police Department had 40 officers provide security for the event. The officers blocked off intersections and walked the march's route with the protesters.
Police Chief Jeff Turner said he was pleased to see there were no altercations during the march. He stressed that neither he, nor any other officials from his department are for -- or against -- removing the board members.
"Our purpose was to make sure the marchers had security, while they peacefully protested the board of education," Turner said. "Everything went smoothly. The marchers had safe passage."
The Concerned Citizens Coalition is planning to hold another protest at tonight's board of education meeting, which will be held at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center, at 2530 Mt. Zion Pkwy., Jonesboro.
The group will begin gathering at 4:30 p.m., although the board meeting will not begin until 6:30 p.m.