By Curt Yeomans
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) has nine mandates for improving Clayton County schools. Two of them deal with issues facing the board of education right now - The quality of the school board, and district finances.
SACS officials are mandating the establishment of an effective and functioning school board, and a forensic audit of district finances, after the agency received concerns about alleged misspending of taxpayer dollars.
As the accreditation crisis continues, community leaders and one state official are calling on Clayton County residents to be active participants in the approval of the school system's new budget, and the election of seven new board members.
"If you're in the ocean and you're drowning, you want to have a lifeline," said Charlton Bivins, president of the Concerned Citizens of Clayton County (C4). "Their [the community's] participation and knowledge is going to be our lifeline. This is probably one of the most critical times, because the accreditation affects everything from the schools, to home prices, to the businesses in our community."
The first mandate listed in SACS' Feb. 15 report is to "establish a governing board that is capable of fulfilling its roles and responsibilities." The district's accreditation has been in jeopardy twice in the last five years. The first crisis, which lasted from 2003 to 2005, resulted in eight board members losing their seats.
The election of eight new board members was supposed to signify a change for the better for Clayton County schools. Instead, SACS officials came back in February of this year, declared the new board "dysfunctional" and compared the district to a "ship without a rudder in dangerous waters."
Several community forums have been set up to let the public ask questions of the people who are running for open seats on the board. Two forums, which have already been held, each drew more than 100 community members. Several additional forums will be held before the July 15 primary election.
The Association of Christian Ministers of Clayton County will hold a forum for every elected position in the county on May 17, from 10 a.m., to 1 p.m., at the Charley Griswell Senior Center, 2300 Hwy. 138, Jonesboro. The Clayton County Council of PTA's will hold a school board candidates forum on May 19, from 6:30 p.m., to 8:30 p.m., at New Macedonia Baptist Church, 7725 Hwy. 85, Riverdale.
The Clayton County Democratic Party will host forums every Saturday and Monday beginning at the Holiday Inn, 6288 Old Dixie Hwy., Jonesboro, until the week before the primary election. The Saturday forums will begin at 4 p.m., while the Monday forums will start at 6 p.m. The forums will also be aired every Tuesday and Thursday on Channel 25, from 7 p.m., to 9 p.m.
The Clayton County Chamber of Commerce will also host a school board candidates forum on June 16 at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center.
"The voters are going to have to focus on putting the right person in office," said Kevin Thomas, chairman of the Clayton County Democratic Party. "There is going to be a spirit of 'Hey, lets roll the dice and see what we get,' but we can't afford to roll the dice. The voters have to be educated on who is running and why that person is seeking a particular office. They have to look for more substance."
While the elections will determine how the district is led for the next four years, the current board is dealing with how taxpayer dollars will be spent for the next year. Corrective Superintendent John Thompson is proposing a $612 million dollar budget for fiscal year 2009, with $418 million coming from the pockets of Clayton County taxpayers.
The process of approving a budget begins with a tentative adoption, which will take place on June 2, and the budget will become available for public inspection at the Central Administration Complex in Jonesboro. A public hearing will be held on June 23, so community members will have an opportunity to voice concerns about items in the budget, before the board votes on final adoption on June 30.
Last year, only a handful of people attended the public hearing for the $566 million 2008 budget, and only one person addressed the board during the meeting.
"This is an important issue that is before the board right now," said James Bostic, one of two liaisons sent by Gov. Sonny Perdue to help the district deal with the accreditation process. "It's important for people to come out and see how the board plans to spend their taxdollars and make their voices heard ... Let's hope there will be a lot more people at the public hearings this year."
According to the school system, highlights of the proposed general operating budget include:
· A 2.5 percent cost of living and step increase for teachers ($9 million).
· Textbook adoption, growth and replacement ($4.2 million).
· A 1.25 percent cost of living and step increase for non-teaching positions ($2.8 million).
· A local supplement increase for teachers with more than 13 years of experience ($1.7 million).
· Twelve consultative teachers ($760,000).
· Enhancements for the Freshman Academy program for instructional coaches and supplies ($700,000).
· Enhancements to the district's alternative school ($600,000).
· Creation of the deputy superintendent position ($167,627).
· Hiring a chief operations officer ($154,371).