0

Doing the right thing - Camille Diana Barbee

Editor's note: In August of 2007, Camille Barbee, who worked amid the hierarchy

of the Clayton County School System, became a whistle blower, deciding to tell the public about instances of micromanagement, meddling and other inappropriate conduct in the upper levels of the school system. What she revealed was the same kinds of "problems" that had gotten the school district placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools a few years earlier. Her revelations would eventually lead to another SACS investigation, the loss of the district's accreditation and the decimation of the school board. Now, almost two years later, after a new board is in place and accreditation has been restored -- on a probationary basis -- she speaks out publicly for the first time on the high cost of telling the truth.

The road back to accreditation for Clayton County Public Schools has been, at best, a treacherous one. Rife with pitfalls, misdirection, congestion and confusion.

We - the citizens who attend school in, live in, and work in, this county - have all, individually and collectively, paid a price for traveling this path.

For some, the price has been astronomical. For others, it was minimal. As for me, the toll has been life-altering.

At 35 years old, and after finishing two Master's degrees - one with a 4.0 GPA - I can't open a checking account or have a debit card, because I told the truth about what I saw while working for Clayton County Public Schools. For several weeks, after revealing what I knew about micromanagement, unethical actions and meddling ( in defiance of previous directives of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) by some of the sitting school board members, I had to go into hiding. Especially after opening, reading, and then reporting, death threats against a former superintendent and a board member.

My house, which was once appraised for thousands of dollars more than I owed, won't sell today for fair market value -- even if there was a buyer. It is now in foreclosure. This is part of the price I paid for telling the truth and doing what I thought was right.

My tumultuous journey with Clayton County originally began as a dream come true. After a grueling interview process for the job of Coordinator of Public Affairs in 2005, I was one of three finalists to interview with former Superintendent Barbara Pulliam. I remember saying to her, "This was the job I was born to do."

In retrospect, I must have appeared and sounded naïve, but the words I so proudly proclaimed then, could not have been truer. Where else could I combine my passions for writing, dealing with the public, reporting, spreading the good news about the children in Clayton County -- and get paid to do so?

I was already an award-winning reporter, had worked as a teacher and was enrolled in courses to obtain a doctorate in educational leadership and administration. I felt I was uniquely qualified for the job.

But what was most attractive about the position was the power to positively counteract the negative stigma that encompassed Clayton County and its students. I signed on as a Communications Specialist. I propositioned the Clayton News Daily to allow Dr. Pulliam to submit weekly columns regarding school system progress, revamped a weekly newsletter to showcase students' achievements, sent quarterly newsletters home to parents and developed media liaisons in each school, who would report extraordinary student work.

Finally, Clayton County students would be recognized locally, and statewide, for their accomplishments, not just their sporadic missteps. I thought things were changing for the better. Little did I know.

Then, without warning, pressure came from now-former school board members to assist them in various ways. Many of their requests were, at first, ordinary, such as editing or writing a speech for an individual board member to deliver at a school function. Or, organize a photo opportunity with a board member and members of a high-achieving group of students in his or her district. Doing these tasks seemed harmless, and I was glad to help.

In 2007, after suffering a brain disease, I was approached by Dr. Pulliam to head the Communications Department as a consultant, to reverse the tide of negative publicity the school system was garnering, following the outbreak of a mysterious rash at a county middle school, and a land deal for a new high school and stadium.

While concentrating on both, I was also charged with handling open-records requests submitted by the public, and rewriting county communications policies. It was during this time that I saw, first-hand, board members micromanaging and behaving in ways that were not only unethical, but illegal.

I brought this fact to the attention of several people, including a reporter at the Clayton News Daily. I was contacted late one night and asked by a board member to stall, and ultimately, not fulfill an open-records request submitted by a member of the public, which would possibly cast the board member and a family member in a negative light. He called a second time, to ensure that I would follow his instructions.

I found myself in a precarious position. Do I disregard the open-records request, which could result in me breaching my commitment to tell the truth, or do I listen to the board member, keep my high-paying consulting job, and lie to the member of the public by using a loophole to allow me to disregard the request?

For hours, I thought of how diligently I had worked trying to restore a positive image to a school system that was once respected among its peers in metro Atlanta and statewide. Publicly, the Board had stated it wanted to be "transparent" in all its dealings. I thought of all the long days I worked and being on call 24 hours a day, which ultimately left me in the hospital, working despite being ill.

In the end, my decision was: Just tell the truth.

And that's what I did. The price I paid, however, was almost more than I could handle. I was vilified, called a liar and my reputation was unjustly impugned. Because I had direct deposit, the school system reversed my paycheck, causing my mortgage payment and all the direct deductions that pay my bills to bounce. I am certain it was to retaliate against me for speaking the truth. Hence, I don't have a debit card now, and cannot open a new checking account to this day.

Months later, board members began to accuse each other of impropriety, some of which I had mentioned in my report in the media, other allegations I had no knowledge of. Subsequently, SACS came out with its findings. Every allegation I made was substantiated. In the end, the entire school board of that time, either resigned or was removed.

I am fully aware that telling the truth has a price. But I am equally reminded that doing nothing also has consequences. I sincerely believe that Clayton County Public Schools is in a better place with this new school board, and it will, hopefully, make a sound -- not hasty -- decision with the next superintendent.