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Clayton schools moving graduations to Georgia Dome

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

For the third year in a row, Clayton County will hold its high school graduation ceremonies in downtown Atlanta.

The May 2009 commencement ceremonies will be held at the Georgia Dome. The ceremonies were held at the nearby Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) for the last two years.

Since 2006, the school district has been seeking a permanent home for graduation ceremonies without having to worry about the weather, or space concerns.

It will cost the school system up to $85,365 to hold eight graduations at the Georgia Dome over a two-day period. Last year, it cost the district $65,000 using the GWCC.

"All we've basically done is nail down the facility, and the process of planning the details should begin soon," said School District Spokesman Charles White. "This amount [$85,365] is just an estimate. As we go through the planning phase, the actual cost will likely go down as we figure out which expenses we can handle ourselves at a lower cost. The amount will not go over [$85,365]!"

The district will pay $45,000 to rent the dome for two days. An additional $9,356 was built into the estimate for audio and visual programing, while $3,000 was allotted for having a school system logo, or phrase on the field, and $1,000 was set aside for decorations.

The largest sum of money, after the rental costs, is the $27,000 earmarked for security, ushers and medical personnel. However, this cost could go down as the school system opts to use school resource officers for security, and teachers, administrators, staff and ROTC students as ushers.

Moving the commencement ceremonies to a large, indoor facility was a 2006 mandate former Superintendent Barbara Pulliam gave to Derrick Manning, assistant superintendent of high schools. Prior to that, the graduation ceremonies were split between Tara Stadium in Jonesboro and Twelve Oaks Stadium in Lovejoy.

The problem with using the stadiums was a fickled Mother Nature. One year, there would be a rainstorm during the ceremonies. Another year, there may not have been rain, but the weather was hot and muggy.

"The one thing we couldn't control was the weather," said White. As a result, the school system spent the last two years holding its graduation ceremonies at the GWCC. Shuttle busses transported family members between the GWCC and Tara Stadium, a program which will continue this year.

The school system also began to stream the graduations live on the Internet in 2007 for relatives who could not attend the ceremonies.

On Sept. 29, Manning told the school board that the 1,800 seat Clayton County Performing Arts Center could not serve the district's needs for a graduation ceremony, because families would be limited to three tickets per graduating senior. He said space and vision issues were also a concern at the GWCC.

Because the floor of the GWCC is flat, some parents at past graduations complained about an inability to clearly see the stage, which prompted the district to consider the Georgia Dome.

When Board member Mary Baker asked Manning about the possibility of moving the graduations to the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park, so the ceremonies would be in Clayton County, she was told that facility raised the same issues as the GWCC.

One of the concerns some parents have about holding the graduations at the Georgia Dome is how close they will be able to get, so they can take a picture of their child walking across the stage. The graduates will be on the field, while the parents will be in the stands.

A picture which was shown to the board on Sept. 29, and again on Oct. 6, depicted an empty end zone area, separating the graduates from the parents. This caused alarm for some parents of graduating seniors -- including board member Jessie Goree, the mother of a North Clayton High School senior -- who were worried they would not be able to get a good photograph of their children on the graduation stage.

"We're going to have the students sitting in the end zone," said Manning on Oct. 6. "That's about 10 feet we'll reduce it by, so the students will be a little closer to the parents. We believe that is what the parents would want."

A possible place for parents to stand while taking pictures is something the school system will consider during the planning phases, White said. The school system will also look for the best place to put handicapped seating, White added.