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SACS: Schools closer to full 'operational' status

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Public Schools has reached "operational" status in all but one of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' original nine mandates for improving the district.

That is according to a recent report from a special review team. The report shows that the school system has made improvements since May, when it regained its accreditation on a probationary basis. The review team visited the 50,000-student school system in mid-October, as part of a process in which the district will be reviewed every six months during the two-year probationary period.

"The district should celebrate its progress, and build on those successes for continued efforts toward full compliance with the mandates and recommendations, working toward full reinstatement of accreditation," the review team wrote in its report.

The report was mailed to Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley last Friday, SACS Spokesperson Jennifer Oliver said. She added that the team is recommending that the district remain on probation, and the AdvancED Accreditation Commission will vote, by conference call, on accepting the report on Jan. 26.

The praise heaped upon Clayton County Public Schools officials, and members of the Clayton County Board of Education, by the review team is a far cry from SACS' reports on the district from February and August of 2008. In those reports, officials from the accrediting agency criticized the district's leaders, including a "dysfunctional" school board.

In August 2008, Clayton County Public Schools became the first U.S. school system in nearly 40 years to lose its accreditation. At the time, the system had only met one of the nine mandates set by SACS by February 2008. Since then, an entirely new school board has worked with SACS officials to meet the remaining mandates. One of the steps the school board took to meet the mandates was the hiring of Heatley in May.

"The committee experienced a culture of welcome, direction, motivation, energy, and focus on student success," the review team's report states. "Pockets of success are beginning to emerge under the leadership of the new superintendent and board members."

Two areas where the school system moved from "emerging" to "operational" status are: the mandates of conducting, and implementing the recommendations from a full, forensic audit of financial information for the district; and on hiring a permanent superintendent "with the expertise to lead the school system."

The team cited Heatley's past, which includes being a retired Marine, and serving previously as the superintendent of the Chino Valley (Calif.) Unified School District, as proof that he met the criteria SACS was looking for in a leader for Clayton County Public Schools.

"Based on interviews and other documentation, Dr. Heatley brings the experience, and expertise required to lead the school district effectively," the team's report says. The only original mandate in which the school system and the school board are still listed as being in the "emerging" category is the mandate of committing to an ethics policy governing the actions of school board members, with appropriate steps included for dealing with violations.

While the review team cited steps taken toward meeting this mandate, it also noted a legal challenge to the new ethics policy, and to the authority of the ethics commission, by school board member Michael King. King is appealing the school board's decision to uphold the ethics commission's order to remove him from office.

"Regardless of the outcome of this judicial process, there is compelling evidence, validated by verbal commitments from members of the board of education, that a strong and sustainable ethics policy will guide the work of the school district," the review team's report states.

Among the four new recommendations from SACS that were established in May, the review team determined that the district had already achieved "operational" status for the recommendation to initiate a comprehensive process for reviewing and revising the school system's vision, mission and values.

The district was listed as being at the "emerging" stage on the other recommendations, which were: to implement a comprehensive strategic planning process at the school and district levels; conduct a review of the district's organizational structure; and the establishment of an articulated action plan for dealing with the resolution of conflicts involving staff members and school board members.

The team urged district officials and school board members to continue building on their progress.

Board of Education Chairperson Alieka Anderson said the team's report was a "great" one, and the board members are continuing to work on areas, such as the ethics policy, and training, to make more progress toward meeting all of SACS' mandates and recommendations." The board is discussing dates to sit down and review ways to "add teeth" to its ethics policy, she said.

Anderson added the board is also guiding itself by following the Georgia School Boards Association's "Board of Distinction" criteria. "We're getting to the point where we've met all of the mandates," Anderson said. "We want full accreditation ... Our goal is to become a Board of Distinction within a year, or close to it."

The review team expressed some concern about the school system's projection that it could be in debt by as much as $37.3 million by 2012. The review team pointed out, however, that Heatley and his staff are reviewing jobs in the school system in an effort to eliminate duplication of responsibilities.

The team members included a recommendation to have school system attorney Glenn Brock provide more parliamentary advice to the school board, rather than employing a separate parliamentarian. The parliamentarian was hired by the school board last year, as a way to help get itself back on track.

The team also highlighted positives within the district, such as a growing student enrollment, and that community members interviewed by the reviewers said they felt they had more of a voice in determining the direction of the district.

The team noted the district's student enrollment has increased by 3,100 students since this past summer, compared to the 3,500 students who left the district after it lost its accreditation.

"Clayton County Public Schools has the potential to become, once again, a quality school district," the team wrote in its report. "Implementing the vision of the board of education, the superintendent, and district leadership will be critical in making this a reality and ensuring that they are truly, as their vision states, "a district of excellence preparing all students to successfully compete in a global economy."

On Monday, during a school board meeting, Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Heatley announced the next scheduled SACS review will take place sometime in mid-to-late March of 2010. Heatley declined to comment on the review team's report on Wednesday, according to School System Spokesman Charles White.