Clayton Schools won't appeal accreditation loss

Will work with SACS officials rather than fight agency

Clayton County Public Schools has changed its mind, and will work with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to get the district's accreditation re-instated by Sept. 1, 2009.

School officials had said earlier that they would appeal the agency's revocation of the system's accreditation last week. Within hours of receiving the news on Aug. 28, Corrective Superintendent John Thompson said students had been "thrown under the bus" by SACS officials and accused SACS review team members of not reading the district's 2,300-page response to the accrediting agency. Clayton County is the first school district in the nation, since the Duval County (Fla.) school system nearly 40 years ago, to be in this situation.

At the time, Thompson also announced that the district would appeal the accreditation loss. On Monday, however, the school system switched its rhetoric, and announced it would not appeal the decision.

Instead of fighting SACS, the district will focus on the one-year re-instatement period available to it.

"It would be devastating for the students, and this whole community if we filed the appeal and then lost," said Thompson on Monday. "We would have spent two to three months fighting SACS, instead of working with them. That's two to three months we could spend working to regain our accreditation."

Officially, the district said the decision was made because of financial and manpower concerns, but Thompson said it was also about finding the route which produced the best results.

The superintendent said the decision to skip the appeal was made after he met with SACS officials, community members and the mayors of Clayton County's six cities. Officials from the accrediting agency outlined what they could do to help the school system, and the community members and mayors told Thompson they wanted to see the district work with SACS, instead of against it.

The district has 12 months to fully comply with eight remaining mandates for improvement which were laid out by SACS in February. The accreditation cannot be re-instated unless all of the mandates are met.

To meet some of the remaining mandates, the district will have to implement recommendations from auditors dealing with hiring and firing practices, and attendance-record keeping. The Board of Education, meanwhile, would have to show it is fully functioning; complies with ethics policies; has removed negative outside influences; has hired a permanent superintendent; can demonstrate an understanding of board policies, and has undergone governance and teamwork training.

SACS President Mark Elgart said the appeal process would have prevented SACS from working with the district for at least 60 days while an appeals panel from AdvancED, the accrediting agency's parent organization, dealt with the issue. SACS has offered to help the district establish benchmarks for addressing each of the remaining mandates, said the accreditation agency's chief.

"If the school district is successful in meeting the benchmarks, and completing each of the remaining eight recommendations, the district should be in a favorable position to have its accreditation re-instated," Elgart said.

Thompson said the collaborative relationship will help the district because school system officials will meet with SACS officials on a regular basis. The accrediting agency will check off each mandate as the district fulfills a requirement for regaining accreditation.

"This time, we will know instead of stabbing in the dark like we did before," Thompson said.

If the district can complete the re-instatement process in the next 12 months, the accreditation will be retroactively returned to 50,000 students -- dating back to Sept. 1 of this year -- as if the loss never occurred.

If the re-instatement process fails, however, Clayton County Public Schools will have to start the process of gaining accreditation from scratch -- a process that takes two to three years to complete.

Earlier this year, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a revised state law, which would preserve the ability for members of the graduating classes of 2009 and 2010 to qualify for HOPE scholarships, despite the district's accreditation loss. The Class of 2011, and possibly the Class of 2012, will not be eligible for those scholarships if the re-instatement process fails.

"I refuse to let these kids ... and their parents, go through another period of devastation," said Thompson.