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Don't rush to judgment with superintendent choice - 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 inappropriate conduct in the upper levels of the school system, 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, she wonders why the new school board seems to be rushing its decision to hire a new superintendent, potentially the most important decision it will ever have to make.

The restoration of Clayton County's accreditation on May 1, gave me hope that, for the first time in many years, the school district was finally moving forward in the right direction. We had all been victimized by years of mistakes, bad decisions and infighting among former school board members, who had apparently come to consider chaos as the norm.

But, with the tossing out of the old board and the establishment of this new school board, it appeared that things were working as they should. Publicly, it appeared that the new school board was committed to accomplishing all that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) had mandated. It was almost easy to forget that eight months ago, the district was in turmoil. I couldn't help but feel optimistic.

And then, without warning, the board figuratively pulled the rug from under me.

On May 5, four days after accreditation was restorated, the school board announced that it has selected a lone superintendent candidate, to head the district. I was, in a word, flabbergasted.

How, without warning, does the board produce a single candidate from a field of 60, for public vetting, without any substantial input from the public? Why would the board, within the last month, give Interim Superintendent Valya Lee a year-long contract for $187,000 to run the district, when less than three weeks later, it selects someone else for the position? I hate to say it, but the new board, unfortunately, is beginning to mimic the old board.

It is not my contention -- as a former educator and head of the district's Communications Department, and a county resident -- that the person selected may not be worthy, nor best suited for the job.

But the board owes it to this community not to rush to judgment with such an important decsion. After four superintendents in as many years, we -- the residents and believers in Clayton County -- deserve the chance to examine more options before making such a monumental choice.

Surely, after all we've been through over the past year -- the prospect of students' diplomas being deemed worthless if they graduated from an unaccredited school district, plummeting real estate values and many houses left vacant because of school system woes, constant news coverage of former school board members' bad behavior, an exorbitant and ill-advised contract to a former superintendent who drew the ire of SACS -- community input is not only necessary, but essential.

If Lee, according to district personnel, made it to the final six of 60 candidates, then why couldn't the other five candidates be formally introduced to the community? Or even the top three candidates?

If the candidates wanted to remain anonymous, or the district was leery of bias toward one particular candidate, just basic information from their resumes could have been posted online, such as how long the person has been a superintendent, strengths and other pertinent qualifications.

Furthermore, why wasn't the community allowed to submit questions via the district's web site and the top three or four relevant questions sent to finalists for their answers, anonymously? Those answers could have been posted on the web site beneath the profiles of the anonymous candidates.

Then, the community could have voted based on those responses on the district's web site. The candidate earning the highest number of votes, based on community response, would be given extra weight on the school board's rubric when determining the final candidate.

For a brief moment, the future in Clayton County did seem bright. It was a major accomplishment having accreditation restored and being told by SACS that the district is making improvement in all the areas in which SACS found deficiency - one of which was launching a national search to find a permanent superintendent.

I am confident the new school board can and will do all that SACS requires. But I hope it remembers this one important fact - it all does not have to be done by tomorrow.

Because the truth is that in its haste, the new school board is in serious danger of repeating the mistakes of the former school board. You still have time, in terms of picking a permanent superintendent, and nothing should be written in stone - yet.

Slow down just a little, while staying focused on your goal. But remember to let us, average citizens, feel as though we, too, are part of the process.

This is not the time to alienate those around you, when you worked so hard to get us back on your side.