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SACS wants BOE to decide on superintendent

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Education will have to make an important decision shortly after Jan. 1, which is when a full, nine-member board will finally be in place.

The board will have to figure out what to do with Superintendent John Thompson. A decision about Thompson's fate is the most serious decision to be made, since it would affect how soon the school system meets the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) ninth mandate for regaining accreditation.

The question for the board is whether Thompson should stay, or go?

"The critical part is the board must decide what to do about the superintendent's position, since Dr. Thompson's contract expires [on June 30]," said SACS Spokesperson Jennifer Oliver. "As long as they have a plan in place [when a SACS review team visits in 2009], it would not preclude them from regaining their accreditation."

SACS gave the district nine mandates for improving the school system in February. The district's ability to meet only one mandate by August led to it losing its accreditation. The first mandate states that a fully functioning school board must be established, while the last mandate, No. 9, requires that the board conduct a professional search for a new superintendent.

"Mandates No. 1 and No. 9 are the two most important mandates we have to fulfill," said Deputy Superintendent Judith Simmons, who is leading the district's efforts to regain accreditation. "Whatever decision the board decides to make, it would have to discuss it articulately and openly. They [board members] need to talk about it openly, so the public feels comfortable and sure they are making the right decision."

Thompson was hired by the school board in April as a corrective superintendent. He quickly made news because of his contract, in which the board granted the district's new leader "unusual powers," such as the ability to bypass the board in the decision-making making process. The contract was amended in September to remove the unusual powers and the word "corrective" from Thompson's title.

If the school board decides to conduct a national search to replace him, the effect on the district's efforts to regain the accreditation would depend upon when the board asks for another review by SACS.

"We recognize that, sometimes, these searches take some time to complete," said Oliver. "It would depend on when they came to us. If they come to us in March or April, as Dr. Thompson has indicated he would like them to do, then we would look at whether or not they have implemented an action plan ...

"If the team does not visit the school system until September, then it would be quite different, because they [would] have had more time to make a decision, which they would have to make by July 1, anyway," Oliver added.

However, school officials are concerned that January may be too soon to ask the board to make a decision about Thompson. Four new board members will take office in either late December, or on Jan. 1, and the board members will not be used to working with their colleagues who have a few more months of experience.

"Basically, you will have a brand new board in January," said Simmons. "The veterans will only be from July, which is what you call a veteran board member in Clayton County these days. Do they even know each other that well?"

Simmons added that the board would be starting a superintendent search from scratch, if it chose to replace Thompson. Although, the previous board decided to postpone an ongoing national search when Thompson was hired, Simmons said the new board should have the freedom to do a search on its own terms.

"I don't think we can hold the new board to discussions or conversations that were held by a board that is no longer in place," Simmons said.

That would mean board members would have to go through training to understand what they should be looking for in a new superintendent. They would also have to choose what they want in a superintendent, and how many candidates would be brought to them by a search firm.

Simmons also said work is continuing to take place to make sure the district meets two other mandates, which dealt with audits of attendance and financial records. There were 19 recommendations which came from the financial audit that focused on the finance, human resources and operations departments.

Recommendations involving the transportation department, which included looking at overtime pay for drivers, have been resolved, Simmons said. The district is installing new phones on all of the district's buses that act as time clocks and global positioning system tools, which allow district officials to track a bus' location at all times.

The position of an internal auditor has been approved, and Simmons said the school district has conducted interviews, and is close to hiring someone for the position. The Deloitte Group, which conducted a compensation study for the district in 2006, has again been hired to review employee compensation.

Simmons also said principals and clerical staff at the district's schools have received training on how to handle attendance records. Assistant principals also will be required to review attendance records on a daily basis. "And, I will occasionally do a random read of their records," said Simmons. "They will have to bring their records to me as evidence to show that we are monitoring the day-to-day, period-by-period attendance."