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Clayton BOE fires Superintendent Thompson
Valya Lee becomes fourth school chief in two years

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Education fired Superintendent John Thompson in a 7-0 vote Saturday, after months of making moves to find a long-term school chief and exert more authority over school system hiring decisions.

He will be paid for the remainder of his $285,000-per-year contract, Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said. Thompson had three and a half months left on that contract.

His termination is effective immediately.

Valya Lee, who had been serving as the district's assistant superintendent of student support services, was appointed by the board as the interim superintendent. She will lead the district until a permanent superintendent is hired. She is the district's fourth superintendent in two years.

"We just want to move forward with the business of the district, and focus on regaining our accreditation," Anderson said.

She declined to comment further on Thompson's firing, but the board later issued a written statement, through the school system, on the matter.

"This action by the board will send a clear message to prospective superintendent candidates that the job is open, including to our internal staff members," the board said in the statement. "It will also allow for a more open, and cooperative working relationship between the board, staff, and accreditation officials."

The board called Saturday's meeting to discuss its previously initiated national superintendent search with attorney Glenn Brock, who is conducting the search. Neither Thompson, nor school system General Counsel Julie Lewis, attended the meeting. Board members Charlton Bivins and Ophelia Burroughs also were not present.

In her motion to fire Thompson, Anderson cited Section 16 of his contract, which authorizes the board to "unilaterally terminate" his employment by a majority vote.

The vote came after an hour-long executive session.

Moments before the school board returned from the executive session to vote, Anderson stood outside the meeting room and said "Pray for me," as other board members and observers walked into the room.

Although Brock joined the board in the executive session that immediately preceded the board's vote to fire Thompson, he said it was only to give board members a list of names of people who have expressed interest in being Clayton County's superintendent. Brock declined to comment on the board's decision to oust Thompson.

The termination of the superintendent's contract came a day after school system officials submitted their accreditation report to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The accrediting agency will send a review team to the district April 13-15 to evaluate whether the district and the school board have made enough progress to regain SACS accreditation.

SACS President Mark Elgart said Saturday that Thompson's firing will not affect the district's efforts to regain accreditation.

"The Clayton County Board of Education is focused on establishing a fresh start, and setting a new direction for the school system," Elgart said. "Regardless of one's view of Dr. Thompson's tenure as superintendent, you must respect his will to assume the leadership of the system last year during an extraordinary period of time."

When reached Sunday, Thompson seemed to be taking the termination in stride. "The board of education ... voted to end our employment relationship, now that the SACS report has been delivered.," he said. "They had the right to do so under a contract provision that I originally proposed. That provision allows them to opt out of the agreement -- without cause -- by paying for the remainder of the contract, should they choose.

"I agreed to this arrangement," he said, "because the situation was not unexpected ...

"Yet, I can assure you of at least three things," he said. "First, the report we delivered ... to SACS will lead to the district's acceditation.

"Second, our children are learning in sound educational environments, supported by dedicated and hard-working professionals and staff.

"And third, the district today is far better than when I arrived, just ten and a half months ago."

State Board of Education Member James Bostic, one of Gov. Sonny Perdue's liaisons to the Clayton County school board, could not be reached for comment. Bostic had indicated in the beginning that he did not think Thompson was the right person for the job.

Anderson: 'We want a superintendent we can trust'

Although Thompson did not attend the school board meeting Saturday, he remained the elephant in the room in the two and a half hours before he was terminated, as board members discussed what kind of leader they wanted to hire as a permanent superintendent.

Much of what board members said centered on wanting to change the direction of the school system. The board members told Brock they were not satisfied with student achievement, board-staff relations, and district-wide leadership. Although he was never mentioned by name, school board members criticized the way the school system was run under Thompson's watch.

"As a parent, I feel a lot of our schools are just treading water, waiting for leadership to happen," Board Member Mary Baker said. "They need a leader to come along. We can tread water with SACS all day, but we don't need to tread water with our children."

Anderson told Brock one of the board's biggest concerns is a perceived air of fear and mistrust when it comes to board-staff relations.

"They've been told not to talk to board members," Anderson said. "They've been written up for talking to board members, and we want to get past that. We want a superintendent we can trust."

Board Member Jessie Goree said, "I just want a superintendent who knows what they need to know, and I can just rubber stamp everything he says."

Brock asked board members about their motivation for improving the school system, and several said students needed to be able to receive a higher quality of education. They also said they wanted a superintendent who could be flexible with the curriculum.

"I want our children to be able to compete academically across the nation," Board Member Wanda Smith said.

A history of controversy, successes

Thompson's position as superintendent has sometimes put him at odds with state officials, SACS, board members and parents.

When Thompson, a North Carolina native who previously led school systems in Tulsa, Okla., and Pittsburgh, Pa., was one of two candidates for the position of corrective action superintendent, Bostic said the board needed a larger pool of applicants.

Bostic also said he would have liked to see someone from Georgia considered for the position.

A day after Thompson was hired in April 2008, Brock resigned as the district's special accreditation attorney, calling the board "unethical" and "deceptive" because Thompson was hired without the full board knowing in advance that the vote would take place.

A few days later, the board held a weekend meeting to approve Thompson's contract, but then-Board Vice Chairperson Michelle Strong declared the vote invalid days later because the meeting was not properly called.

The size of Thompson's annual salary drew the ire of some in the community.

A month later, Thompson made headlines when he ordered the shredding of 2,600 diplomas because they did not include his signature. The company which printed the diplomas ended up making new ones for the district at no cost.

In August 2008, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked the district's accreditation, despite Thompson's public assurances in the preceding months that the accreditation was safe.

Clayton County was the first U.S. school system in nearly 40 years to lose its accreditation. "Unusual powers" given to Thompson in his contract, such as the ability to bypass the school board and its policies unless prohibited by state and federal law, was one of the reasons cited in the accrediting agency's report. Thompson later gave up those powers, and began working with SACS officials on a plan to regain the district's accreditation.

In January of this year, the school board was faced with three options for meeting one of SACS' mandates for improvement, a mandate which requires hiring a permanent school chief. The board could extend Thompson's contract, conduct a national superintendent search without including him, or conduct a national search and allow Thompson to apply for the position.

The board chose to conduct a national search, and to allow Thompson to apply. The board rehired Brock earlier this month to lead the search. Also this month, the school board implemented a hiring freeze for high-level administrative positions, although Thompson was allowed to fill positions - with board approval - if he showed they were essential to the operation of the school system. The hiring freeze overlapped another freeze, put in place by Thompson at the beginning of the year.

In spite of the controversies, Clayton County students continued to be successful. The Jonesboro High School Mock Trial Team won a second national championship in May 2008, all of the county's schools received accreditation from the Georgia Accrediting Commission in October, and Zodiax, a dance team made up of Clayton County students, won a nationally-televised dance competition in November.

Also in November, the district announced 90 percent of Clayton County's high school seniors passed the writing portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test, which was taken two months earlier. It marked an improvement of three percentage points from the 2007 writing scores.

Parents have mixed reactions on firing

Linda Granger, a Riverdale resident and concerned parent, smiled and raised her hands in the air after Thompson was fired by the board. She said community morale sank while Thompson ran the school system, the administration needed improvement, and the school system needed to "put students first."

"This is what the people wanted," Granger said. "This is a Godsend."

Cyd Cox, president of the Clayton County Association of Parent-Teacher Associations, said she was "in shock" about Thompson's dismissal, though. She also had concerns about the school system's efforts to regain its accreditation, as well as how much money the district would have to pay on past, present and future leadership.

Cox said she did not have a problem with the way Thompson ran the school system, although her main focus was on seeing the district regain its accreditation.

"We're now going to pay him out of our pockets, and step up Valya Lee's salary, and try to hire a new superintendent," Cox said. "I don't know if we're going to get our accreditation back now. They're not being good stewards of taxpayer dollars."

Cox said she feels Thompson's firing will hurt efforts to hire a highly qualified superintendent. "If I was a candidate, I wouldn't want to come down here because you never know when the board will fire you," she said.

Lee: 'We will continue to move forward'

Lee said she plans to meet with staff members on Monday to discuss the leadership transition. She also said no discussions have taken place about whether there will be any staff changes. She said she does not plan to apply for the permanent superintendent position.

Lee attended the early portion of the board meeting Saturday, but left during the executive session. She had to be called back by staff members after the board's vote on Thompson.

Upon her return, the board members congratulated her, and she gave a few, brief remarks.

"We will continue to move forward on everything you were already working on, and get ready for you all to select a permanent superintendent," Lee said.

Lee, 51, who attended Arnold Elementary School in Jonesboro but graduated from the Atlanta Public School System, has been working in K- 12 education for 17 years. She said she was also an adjunct professor of teacher education at Kennesaw State University from August 2006 until June 2008.

Lee began working for Clayton County schools in 1994, as a teacher at Riverdale Middle School. Over the next 11 years, she held positions as assistant principal at Pointe South Elementary School, principal at Kemp Elementary School, assistant superintendent of one zone of K-12 schools, and assistant superintendent of middle schools.

In 2005, she left Clayton County to become the assistant superintendent of student support services for Rockdale County schools. She returned to Clayton County in July 2007, though, as the chief of staff under former Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan.

"The beauty of that experience as chief of staff is, I was responsible for all aspects of school operation," Lee said.

After Thompson was hired in April 2008, Lee became the district's assistant superintendent of student support services. She also briefly served as the principal at E.W. Oliver Elementary School last year.

"I am a born leader, and my heart is with the children - yours, mine and ours," Lee said after Saturday's meeting. "We are truly a community of educators. We have to work collaboratively, so what starts at home continues in the school, and what starts at school continues at home."

SideBar: John Thompson's March 14 statement

On Friday, March 13, we delivered to SACS our report to restore the accreditation of the Clayton County Schools. The report comes almost exactly one year from the vote by SACS to revoke accreditation - based on the actions and behaviors of the Board of Education - and its members. I was hired late last April, by the former board, to lead the District's recovery.

Since my arrival, I have worked tirelessly, along with many others, in that effort. From day one, I have made clear that my focus would be on two things: Assuring an excellent education for the children, and restoring accreditation. I have been true to those tasks.

I have attempted to engage all segments of our diverse community in that process, working with all levels of political leaders and an ever-changing roster of school board members. The state and local political circumstances, severe economic crisis, unprecedented and constant changes on the school board, and accreditation concerns made this a task that many thought impossible.

Yet, I can assure you of at least three things. First, the report we delivered yesterday to SACS will lead to the district's accreditation. Second, our children are learning in sound educational environments, supported by dedicated and hard-working professionals and staff. And, third, the district today is far better than when I arrived, just ten and a half months ago. The Board of Education today [Saturday] voted to end our employment relationship, now that the SACS report has been delivered. They had the right to do so under a contract provision that I originally proposed. That provision allows them to opt out of the agreement - without cause - by paying for the remainder of the contract, should they choose. I agreed to this arrangement when I signed the contract, because the situation was not unexpected. None of the current members were on the board when I was hired, and the board is now in the midst of a superintendent search in which I had chosen not to participate.

Under the circumstances, the board has every right to move in a different direction and select a superintendent with whom they can create a new relationship. I wish them well in that process. I have poured my heart and soul into this incredibly difficult job, which has been the most demanding superintendent's position in America over the past year. The report submitted yesterday [Friday] to SACS in many ways completes the job for which I was hired. I leave here confident that we have accomplished what many said could not be done in the short time we had available, and proud of our hard work together.

- John Thompson