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New BOE has full plate in 2009

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Education will have no shortage of issues to tackle as 2009 begins.

While regaining the district's accreditation has been an issue on the minds of board members for some time, there will also be a search for a new superintendent, district finances and redistricting to consider. Many of these issues will overlap this spring.

"Basically, we do have a lot on our plate as a group," said Jessie Goree, a board member. "We just have to sit down as a group and prioritize everything."

The board will begin tackling how to handle the search, and the financial issues, on Saturday, during a training session that begins at 8 a.m., at the Professional Learning Center, 1087 Battle Creek Road, Jonesboro.

Two sticky issues facing the board have a direct link to each other: The regaining of accreditation, and the search for a superintendent.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) will send a review team to the district in April to check on how much progress has been made toward regaining accreditation. During the visit, the team will observe the way the board members conduct themselves during a meeting, conduct interviews and review documents.

At the same time, the district will be in the midst of its search for a new superintendent. The contract of John Thompson, the current school chief, expires on June 30. Earlier this week, the board decided to conduct a national search, with Thompson being allowed to apply for the position.

The search ties into the accreditation issue because one of the nine mandates to regain accreditation is to hire a permanent superintendent. SACS officials will look to see if the board has a plan for hiring a new school chief, and whether the governing body is following that plan.

The issues of the district's finances and redistricting are more distantly related to accreditation. Every year, the school system has to put together a budget for the coming fiscal year, and the board ultimately has to approve it. Next month, the board will appoint its citizens budget committee, which will provide community input into the budget process.

This year, the school system is dealing with an anticipated $5 million loss of local tax funds from the moving of car rental businesses at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, to Fulton County. There is also the undetermined affect of home foreclosures on local tax dollars. The district also anticipates a $6 million austerity cut from the state.

There will also be a $16.3 million reduction in per pupil funding because of student flight in the wake of the accreditation loss.

That student flight will also have some impact on the redistricting plans for the system's ninth high school, which will open its doors in August. The district has already lost more than 3,000 students because of the accreditation problem.

On Monday, District Spokesman Charles White said the school system anticipates an influx of students, if accreditation is regained. So, how does the board simultaneously juggle all of these responsibilities?

Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said board members will have to sit down with district officials to come up with strategies to address each of these issues. She said this will particularly be important during discussions about the Fiscal Year 2010 budget.

"These budget cuts are going to be felt across the state, it's not just Clayton County," said Anderson. "If we've got to cut somewhere, we've got to make sure the students' needs are still being met."

Along those lines, Goree said the board should put its faith in the district's staff to do the ground work on the budget and redistricting. "I have tremendous faith in them," she said. "The staff are the ones who do the day-to-day stuff."

But, when it comes to making decisions on those issues, board member Wanda Smith said the board needs to thoroughly examine every issue. She also said the board needs to work as a team to address issues, while accepting the fact that each board member has a different opinion.

Board members Pam Adamson and Charlton Bivins also said the board can get through these issues, with support from external groups. Adamson, who is trained to review school systems for SACS, said the accrediting agency's standards for a school system should be the guiding principles the board follows in the future.

"When you say focus on accreditation, you have to realize it's not just the nine mandates, but those standards as well," said Adamson. "That's why they are there. They bring definition to the things that really good school systems do. If done well, accreditation is not just something you do every five years, or so. It drives your actions on a day-to-day basis."

Bivins said he felt the support offered to the board by the Georgia School Boards Association, the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government, and state Board of Education members Brad Bryant and James Bostic will help as well.

"We are getting real-time training on each of these topics right before we deal with them," said Bivins. "Other boards may go into these issues based on their experience, but we'll be going into them off our training."