School officials: Accreditation work 80 percent complete

Three months before a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) review team is slated to visit the school system, Clayton County Public School officials claimed Monday they have completed most of the work needed to regain the district's accreditation.

In September 2008, school system and SACS officials presented 46 actions steps for regaining accreditation to the Clayton County Board of Education. The action steps have been the guidelines to resolve the accreditation crisis. A SACS review team is set to visit the district in April to evaluate the progress.

"As we looked at the action steps, we have met 80 percent of the action steps that fell under the mandates," Deputy Superintendent Judith Simmons said Monday during the school board's work session.

Simmons then had several district officials, including Chief Operations Officer Joseph Jones, Chief Financial Officer Roger Reese, Chief Human Resources Officer Larry Conner, Budget and Finance Director Ramona Thurman, and Chief Academic Officer Kay Sledge outline some of the steps already taken.

Those included hiring staffers to oversee compensation, audits, and purchasing cards, and installing Global Positioning System phones on schools buses, which allow transportation officials to see when, and where, bus drivers clock in and out of work.

But, Simmons' proclamation was met with skepticism from at least one board member. Michael King questioned the confidence displayed when previous promises went unfilled. He recalled a similar declaration from Superintendent John Thompson last June. A review team from the accrediting agency determined two months later the system only met one mandate. As a result, the district lost its accreditation.

"If that happens again, there is going to be a riot in this county," King said.

King said he wanted outside officials, like state Board of Education members James Bostic and Brad Bryant, who are also Gov. Sonny Perdue's liaisons with the Clayton school board, to review the district's progress.

"We want to hear from experts who say 'Yes, you have met 80 percent of the mandates,'" King said. "We need to utilize these people to give the public some reassurances, not just an opinion."

Despite King's doubts, board member Pamela Adamson, expressed optimism. She is the board's SACS liaison, and recently sat in on a meeting between district officials and those from SACS.

"They were able to show me evidence of what they had done, and when they did it," said Adamson, who is trained to do reviews for SACS. "Mr. King, I've chaired SACS review teams like the one that will come in here, so I sort of know what they're looking for. I feel confident that we're headed in the right direction."

Superintendent Thompson told King no amount of outside experts can predict what the SACS review team will determine about the district. "If Mr. Bostic and Mr. Bryant say we're on track, that's great, but it doesn't mean anything to SACS," Thompson said emphatically. "The only thing that matters to SACS are those people who come in from SACS to look at this district."

One key area that has not been met is the search for a new superintendent. On Jan. 5, the board voted to conduct a national search to find someone to lead the district after Thompson's contract expires on June 30. Thompson is allowed to apply for the position.

The board got a superintendent search update from Richard Greene, an associate from the Illinois-based executive search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates. The group began its search in 2007, but it was put on hold in March 2008, so a corrective superintendent search could take place. Thompson was hired.

On Monday, Greene was quizzed for nearly an hour on how much it would cost to continue using his firm; where the previous search left off; why the corrective superintendent idea was recommended to the board, and how soon a new superintendent could be in place, if the firm finished its search.

Greene said the firm could finish the search for as little as $16,000. He noted that the initial search drew 27 candidates, but his firm did not recommend anyone.

"When I looked at the quality of the candidates, and what was going on in the district at the time, I came to the board that was here at the time and said, 'You've gotta be out of your cotton pickin' mind to continue with this search,'" Greene said. "'Anyone you hire will last six months to a year, and either you'll ask them to leave, or they will run out of here ranting and raving. There was so much dysfunction that needed to be corrected in this school system."

Greene said the timeline would "be close," but he felt a new superintendent could be in place by July 1. The board will decide at its Feb. 2 business meeting whether to keep Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates.