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Schools laying off 19 administrators, staff
In-house attorney among those cut

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Public School officials said Wednesday they expect to cut their annual expenditures by nearly $1 million through job cuts made this week at the district's central office in Jonesboro.

Fourteen central office administrators and staff members saw their positions eliminated in what Interim Superintendent Valya Lee, and School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson termed a "reduction of force."

School System Spokesman John Lyles said the contracts of an additional five central office employees were not renewed for the 2009-10 school year, and their employment will end in June.

The school district is looking at an expected $23 million reduction in state funding during the next fiscal year, mainly because more than 3,000 students have left the unaccredited school system since last fall. As many as 300 teachers may not return next year, because of the exodus of students.

The 19 people who will leave the district through the reductions and non-renewals will save the school system approximately $900,000, officials said.

"We're doing this for the same reason we had to let those teachers go - we don't have enough kids," Lee said. "When you talk about cutting people, it should start at the top ... We have to put the emphasis and money on those individuals that have a direct impact on student learning, and achievement."

Among the individuals let go was School System General Counsel Julie Lewis, officials said. Meanwhile, the contracts of former Deputy Superintendent Judith Simmons, former Chief Human Resources Officer Larry Conner, former Chief Operations Officer Joseph Jones, and former Chief Financial Officer Roger Reese will not be renewed.

Those five individuals have in common that they were brought to the district last year by former Superintendent John Thompson. The school board fired Thompson at a March 14 meeting.

While Lewis' employment ended Tuesday, Simmons, Jones, Reese and Connor will remain with the district until June, Lee said.

"These are individuals that came in under his [Thompson's] leadership," Lee said. "What we need are people with a proven track record of success. People with institutional knowledge of the district, and who understand the culture of this community ... This does speak volumes about the direction the board wants this school system to go in," Lee said.

Lyles, the spokesman, said he could not release the names and positions of the other employees affected by the changes, because some were still being notified of the decision, as of Wednesday evening. He said, however, no employees at the school level will be affected by the reduction in force.

Legal turnover for the district

The decision to let Lewis go is the latest in a series of legal representation turnovers over the last two years. Lewis was the fourth attorney to oversee legal representation for the district since Jan. 1, 2007. When she was hired last year, Lewis said the district needed stability and focus as it dealt with the ongoing accreditation crisis.

"There's been a lot of changes taking place, and a lot of people working on different things," Lewis said last May. Anderson said the buyout for Lewis' contract will be the equivalent of six months of her $175,000 annual salary.

There are conflicting reports of how legal affairs will be handled in the immediate future, however. Lyles said no decision had been made about who will represent the district, and either a request for proposals, or a call for bids will be put out to find a law firm. Anderson, however, said the Marietta-based law firm of Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers, and the Jonesboro-based Fincher, Denmark, and Williams, L.L.C., will split the responsibility of being the school board's legal counsel.

Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers' partner Glenn Brock is conducting the school system's superintendent search, while Fincher, Denmark, and Williams is one of the law firms on the district's list of supplemental attorneys. Winston Denmark, a partner in Fincher, Denmark and Williams, is also the legal counsel for the school board's ethics commission.

Officials gave two reasons for changing from an internal legal counsel to an external one. Anderson said the move will save the school system money, while Lee said the decision came on the heels of increasing requests from Lewis for more staff, including a paralegal and staff attorney.

Initially, Lee said, "The board wanted to make sure the volume of work gets full attention, and to make sure we are utilizing district funds in the best interest of the school system." But, she later said, "The board just wanted to have a law firm with different people, that have their specializations in different areas."

The SACS visit is coming up

Since Lee was appointed as the interim superintendent last month, she has moved several people around in high-level positions in addition to this week's changes. At least 14 people have been moved around in central administrative positions since March 14.

The shakeups come less than two weeks before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is set to send a review team to Clayton County schools to evaluate the district. The team will determine whether Clayton's accreditation should be restored. Last year, the school system became the first district in the nation since 1969 to lose its accreditation.

The district formed its own 14-member internal review team last year to lead efforts to meet SACS' nine mandates for improving the school system. Five of the officials who have been let go or didn't get contract renewals were on that team. They included Lewis, Conner, Jones, and Reese. And Simmons was the group's leader until Thompson was fired.

During the SACS review team's visit April 13-15, accreditation officials are slated to interview board members and unspecified school system leaders. SACS Spokesperson Jennifer Oliver said the itinerary for the visit is still being finalized, so she could not confirm whether the affected school system employees will be interviewed. "I'm sure the [SACS] review team will want to talk to some members of the [district's] team," Oliver said. "I can't say if they will talk to all of them at one time, or only a few of them, though."

School system officials said they are not concerned about the possibility of the staff shakeups having a negative effect on the SACS visit. Lee said, however, that she has not discussed the changes with the accrediting agency.

Officials from Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers, and Fincher, Denmark, and Williams, L.L.C., could not be reached for comment. Lewis also could not be reached for comment.