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Accreditation tops new BOE's business agenda

After three and a half weeks of not being able to address school system business because of a shortage of members, the Clayton County Board of Education is ready to get back to work.

The school board's membership was suddenly cut down to three members on Aug. 28, after Gov. Sonny Perdue removed four board members from office for misconduct and violations of the state's Open Meetings Act. The nine-member board already had two vacancies. It needed five members to have a quorum for business meetings.

Now that the board has appointed three members, and Mary Baker won a special election in District 6 on Tuesday, the board will resume dealing with the district's business affairs at a Sept. 22 called meeting.

Before the business meeting begins, the board will have Baker and appointed members, Jessie Goree, Lindsey McDaniel, III, and Trena Morris, sworn in, officially giving the board seven members.

"It's been frustrating [since Aug. 28], but we knew we had to put the right people into office," said Alieka Anderson, the board's acting chairperson. "I'm definitely looking forward to getting back to business, and I think we're going to have a very productive meeting on Monday."

In addition to dealing with monthly finance and construction reports, the board also has to deal with the ongoing accreditation saga. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) revoked the accreditation earlier this month, but the school system has 12 months to get the accreditation retroactively re-instated, by meeting the eight remaining mandates for improvement.

Several board members said accreditation will be the main issue on their agenda. Board member Morris said it is crucial to improve the body, so it complies with SACS standards, because the current situation has caused students to worry that some colleges may not accept them if they graduate from an unaccredited school system.

Other board members said the key to improving the district's governing body is to look at how the former board members conducted business. "I would like to see SACS sit down with us and explain where the old board failed, so we will know what we should be doing," said Baker.

The phrase "dysfunctional school board" was the one statement from SACS' initial report on the district, released in February, which has been echoed by community members for months. Public shouting matches, trading of insults and criticism of staff members had become commonplace at board meetings. It was not unusual to see board members arguing with each other during meetings.

"We've got to do the things the old board didn't do, in terms of ethics and working as a team," McDaniel said. "With the old board, you didn't see them sitting up there as a team. What you saw was nine individuals with their own agendas."

One of the areas where SACS officials decided the old school board failed the district was its loss of authority. The Aug. 28 SACS report cited issues with the "unusual powers" the old school board granted to Corrective Superintendent John Thompson in his contract.

Thompson's contract gives him the authority to make some decisions without board approval, even if those decisions conflict with existing board policies. Board members also cannot have any contact with school system staff members, and cannot be one school system property -- except as a parent, or to attend board meetings -- without Thompson's permission.

The board also cannot reassign any of Thompson's duties without his approval. When he announced the accreditation loss, SACS President Mark Elgart said the board could not meet the mandate of becoming a fully function governing body as long as it abdicated some of its authority to the superintendent.

Thompson has repeatedly said he will give up those powers, if it will help the district regain its accreditation.

"He needs to relinquish some of his powers," said Goree. "The authority that was given to him needs to be retaken by the board. Otherwise, we can't meet that mandate."

Board member Michael King, who is also an attorney, said he did not think Thompson's contract was legal, based on his interpretation of Georgia law. King said the contract violates state law, because it yielded some of the board's authority to the superintendent. "If there is a contract that conflicts with state law, then that contract is null and void," King said.

In terms of dealing with the superintendent, board member Garrett said the mandate of hiring a permanent superintendent should be the first mandate addressed by the board, but she also said the community should give Thompson a chance.

"He's really good at what he does," Garrett said. "I just hate that he came into the situation when he did, and then had to take the blame. It's just like we [Anderson, Garrett and King] did when they removed those four board members. We had to bite the bullet ... They [community members] have to give him a chance. They need to give him a chance."