By Curt Yeomans
The man who may be Clayton County's next school superintendent said the district is "poised for greatness," but it is going to have to prove it is worthy of regaining the 3,200 students it lost, because of its accreditation woes, before it can expect families to return to the school system.
Retired Marine Master Sgt. Edmond Heatley, currently the superintendent of the Chino Valley (Calif.) Unified School District, said Clayton County Public Schools will have to instill confidence that a loss of accreditation can never happen again, before students will return to the district.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools re-instated Clayton County's accreditation last Friday, but the school system is on a two-year probationary status.
"I don't believe any family made the decision to leave lightly, because it was a change of lifestyle for them," Heatley said Wednesday. "So, I don't believe they're just going to jump and go 'Oh you got the accreditation back. Oh, you hired a new superintendent. Oh, you have a new board, but what does that mean to me and my kids?' We're going to have to show them. That's how we're going to get them back."
Heatley was introduced to the media and the Clayton County community Wednesday during a community forum attended by approximately 75 parents, district employees and community leaders.
The lone superintendent finalist said he believes the accreditation crisis spurred the community's determination to improve the school system. "Anytime you're hit upside the head with the loss of accreditation of sorts, and you're determined to bounce back from that, that puts a fire in your belly and I think Clayton has that," Heatley said.
During the community forum, Heatley said his vision for Clayton County Schools - if he's hired - is to see the district be the top school system in Georgia within five to 10 years.
If he's hired to be the superintendent, Heatley said curriculum decisions would be based on data, although it should be "rigorous and relevant." He said he would have to evaluate academic programs already used by the district before he makes any decisions about adding new programs, or cutting old ones.
"At the end of the day, it's not the program that educates the kids, it's the people that educate the kids," Heatley said. "So we're going to spend a lot of time investing in our people in the system, not so much the programs that we can bring in."
Heatley said he will not follow the path of former Superintendent John Thompson, by bringing in a team of people he has worked with in the past.
"That would be pretty disrespectful to the team here," Heatley said. "And so, what I would rather do is come and work with the team we have here to become the best we can be, and then, if need be, somewhere in the future, if we need to infuse new blood, then we'll do that."
"I think the wrong message would be to bring in a new team," Heatley said. "Remember, this team just got their accreditation back, albeit probation, but they got it back."
School board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said she has received questions from several community members about why the board considered a superintendent from California, rather than picking finalists who were from the Atlanta area.
"You've got to get out there and do your research and then pick the best person for the job," Anderson said. "We did a search, we interviewed candidates, and we feel we found the best person to lead the school system."
What remains to be seen is how much money Heatley would make if he is hired to be Clayton County's superintendent. Part of the controversy surrounding former Superintendent Thompson was his base salary of $285,000 per year.
Heatley said his base salary for leading Chino Valley schools is approximately $250,000. He also said he will work with the school board to "make sure the district is taken care of, and my family is taken care of" during contract negotiations when asked if he would take a pay cut to lead Clayton County schools.
Anderson said the board will keep its fiduciary responsibilities to the county in mind when it negotiates Heatley's contract - if he's hired to be the new superintendent. "We will agree to responsible compensation based on his experience and qualifications," Anderson said.
Anderson the board will vote on whether to hire Heatley as soon as the state-mandated 14-day waiting period is up. May 19 will be the 14th day.