By Curt Yeomans
Four of the five candidates seeking the Clayton County Board of Education's District 9 seat in a Nov. 4 special election accused the school board of being an obstacle in the pursuit of regaining accreditation, and public and employee trust.
The comments came during a candidates' forum Thursday hosted by the League of Women Voters of Georgia, and the Psi Alpha Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, at the Carl Rhodenizer Recreation Center in Rex.
Comments from the candidates were directed at the actions of nine people who no longer are on the school board, but the message was clear: A different kind of school board is needed to move Clayton County forward. All candidates agreed that the quality of the schools, and the education provided, are not the reasons why the district lost its accreditation.
"Clayton County already had a world-class education system; it just had dysfunction at the very top," said candidate James Searcy. He said he "immersed" himself in the school system when he moved to Clayton County four years ago. "I am impressed by the technology we have in our schools."
Whoever wins the special election in District 9 will replace Sandra Scott, a former vice chairperson who was removed from office in August by Gov. Sonny Perdue for alleged unethical behavior and violations of the state's Open Meetings Act.
In addition to Searcy, other candidates at the forum were Charlton Bivins, Irene Lewis, and Toney Walker. Candidate Ernest L. Donaldson did not attend.
Former board members were the elephants in the room as the candidates answered questions.
Lewis said the key to regaining the trust of the public, and the teachers, is to focus on trusting each other. However, she said the board has to learn to deal with its problems in-house, instead of publicly airing each other's dirty laundry.
Former board members made a habit of publicly accusing each other of wrongdoing. Ultimately, some former board members went to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools with complaints. SACS, in turn, launched an investigation in January that led to the accreditation being revoked last month.
"We have to have trust in each other, and then go out and show it to other people through our actions," said Lewis. "We also have to follow the policies that have been put in place, and not let it just be words on a piece of paper. If we can do that, then we will regain the trust of others."
The candidates said the board members must cooperate, but Bivins and Searcy pointed out that it will not always to be easy to get nine people to agree on issues.
"Boards were created to have a meeting of the minds," said Bivins. "People have different opinions on issues, and they are not always going to see eye-to-eye on an issue ... However, I absolutely believe in conflict resolution when it's needed."
Candidates also urged a closer working relationship with SACS and state school officials in regaining accreditation. Two state liaisons, assigned by Gov. Perdue to help the district keep its accreditation, quit working with the former board members in May, claiming the board was too dysfunctional to work with. The liaisons have since begun working with the newer board members.
"They [SACS] hold all of the cards. They have all of the power," said Walker. "We need to work with them, instead of against them ... We also need to set tight guidelines and meet with SACS to make sure we do what we are supposed to be doing."
During the forum, the candidates revealed several bits of information about themselves.
Bivins is a lieutenant in the DeKalb County Sheriff's Department and a 20-year resident of Clayton County. He has one daughter, who is a senior at Jonesboro High School, but his younger daughter is a freshman at Forest Park High School, because it made Adequate Yearly Progress last year, and the Bivins family chose to use school choice. He is also on "hiatus" as the chairman of the community organization Concerned Citizens of Clayton County (C4).
Lewis is a training manager for AT&T, who has lived in Clayton County for five years. She has one daughter who is a fourth-grader at an unidentified Clayton County elementary school. Lewis also said she is an active member of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).
Searcy is a retired Naval chief yeoman, who now works as a Realtor. He also is an active member of the Clayton County Wide Homeowners Association and the Peachtree Landing Homeowners Association. He said he has bachelor's and master's degrees in education-related fields.
Walker is a middle school teacher in the Atlanta Public School System, and he has two children who have attended Clayton County schools. He has been a teacher for 14 years, and has spent the last eight years in the Atlanta system. He has lived in Clayton County for six and a half years.