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Lee vows, 'We will be on top again.'

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Interim School Superintendent Valya Lee told high-level administrators, central office staff and school principals Monday the district is going to spend the coming months figuring out "what we need to do to right this ship."

Lee replaced former Superintendent John Thompson, who was fired Saturday by the school board. She began her tenure by sharing her vision for improving the school system with several district employees. Lee said the district will be stronger than it has been in years, after it regains its accreditation.

"Without a vision, people are doomed to perish," she said. "My vision is to move this district from good to great. Those of you who are like me, and have some longevity in the district, remember when this school system was on top, and we were one of the best school systems in the state. We will be on top again ...

"I can assure you, you are going to be out there [in the community] singing the praises of this school system soon," she said.

Lee will lead the school system until the school board hires a permanent superintendent. The board has set a July 1 deadline to have a permanent superintendent in place.

Lee's vision for the system

Although Lee said Saturday she was not interested in the permanent superintendent position, she changed her tune Monday, and said she would not turn down the job, if it were offered to her.

Her vision for improving student achievement calls for the district to make data-driven decisions based on the results of comparable school systems; be student centered, educationally sound and fiscally responsible; and maintain open lines of communication with the public by being available to answer questions.

Principals have been asked to meet with their school councils and Parent-Teacher Association officers by the end of the week to discuss the superintendent's goals, Lee said.

The interim superintendent said becoming a "great" school system will take a strong commitment to student success, which includes increasing their motivation to learn by having enthusiastic teachers. "From the highest achievers, to the most challenged students, we're going to have a commitment to see every child succeed," she said.

Lee also said fulfillment of her goals depends upon having a "highly functional and supportive board of education."

School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson, in turn, told staff members the board was going to expect educational excellence from them in the future. Anderson, board Vice Chairperson Ophelia Burroughs, and board members, Pamela Adamson, Charlton Bivins, Trinia Garrett and Jessie Goree, stood by Lee for the first 10 minutes of the meeting with staff members, and then left the gathering.

Employee morale a focus

Lee's other goals are to increase employee morale, and regain the district's accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Lee previously served on the district's internal accreditation review team. As the superintendent, she will be responsible for steering the district through a SACS review team visit, April 13-15.

District officials sent their report to the accrediting agency Friday, detailing how the school system, and the school board, have progressed since SACS issued nine mandates for improvement in February 2008. Lee said she plans to have college professors look over the report, and the district will hold community forums at all eight high schools in the county to discuss the report with parents.

"We're in good shape," she said. "It's not, 'Will we have our accreditation?' We're going to have our accreditation."

As Lee took over the reigns of the district, she said some changes lay ahead at the higher levels of the system's administration. The only announced change was that Sharon Brown, who served as the district's executive director of federal programs until the leadership change, will become the special assistant to the superintendent, Lee said.

Where is Deputy Superintendent Simmons?

There is a question, though, about whether Deputy Superintendent Judith Simmons, who was brought in by Thompson in April of last year, is still employed by the school system. "I will not fill the deputy superintendent position," Lee told staff members. "I will leave that to whoever the permanent superintendent is."

District Spokesman Charles White said he could neither confirm, nor deny if Simmons was still a school system employee. "I can't answer that question because nothing has been released by the superintendent's office, to the communications department, about Dr. Simmons at this time," White said.

Lee told staff members Thompson had an important impact on the school system by leading it through the accreditation crisis. She also told staff members to stop anyone whom they heard saying negative things about her predecessor. "When you're focusing on the negative, you cannot focus on the positive," Lee said later, at a press conference.

During the press conference, the school board's chairperson, Anderson, said the board will work with Lee to announce academic goals, recognize academic successes, and evaluate setbacks -- "not to criticize, but to ask ourselves what additional strategies and resources need to be focused in those areas ...

"This loss of focus on student achievement did not occur last week, or last month," Anderson said. "It has occurred over the past several years. It is going to require all our efforts to work together to identify our bad habits and distractions which took us off course, and then to have the courage to correct them."

Signs of Thompson gone

In the intervening period between Lee's meetings with employees in the morning and the press conference in the afternoon, a large sign, which hung behind the dais in the school board's meeting room -- and displayed the district's seal and Thompson's name -- had been removed.

"Our actions of this past weekend should be an indicator of this board's desire to insist on a more open administration, and one whose directive is to return our focus to student achievement," Anderson said.

Clayton County Education Association President Sid Chapman said Thompson had trouble maintaining credibility with teachers after he proclaimed the accreditation was safe last summer, and submitted a 2,300-page report to SACS, which failed to prevent the district's loss of accreditation.

Chapman said other problems included Thompson's decision to order the shredding of diplomas for the Class of 2008, because they did not include his signature, and hiring people for new positions with high salaries, when the economy was beginning to falter.

A more recent problem, however, was the school system's decision last week to now offer new contracts to several tenured teachers, who had not been tendered contracts to return to the system next year. Teachers gain tenure by working for the same school system for four years. Chapman said the contract decision was likely made by someone in the school system's human resources department, but he ultimately laid the blame on Thompson.

"He was the superintendent, the buck stops with him," Chapman said.

A little background on Lee

Lee began her association with Clayton County schools in 1994 as a teacher at Riverdale Middle School, and eventually moved on to assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent positions before leaving in 2005 to become an assistant superintendent in Rockdale County Schools.

She returned to Clayton County in 2007 as the chief of staff under former Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan, and became an assistant superintendent again last year.

"She knows the district," Chapman said. "She came up through the ranks. She was a good principal. She was fair to her employees. I think she will do a fair job in the interim as superintendent."