Another school system to lose accreditation

Less than a year after Clayton County Public Schools' accreditation was restored, another Georgia school system has been told it will lose its stamp of approval from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

SACS decided this month to revoke the accreditation of the Warren County School System in July, citing school board governance issues. The accrediting agency's parent body, the AdvancED Accreditation Commission, approved the decision earlier this week, according to Warren County School System Superintendent Carole Jean Carey.

According to a Jan. 5 SACS review team report on the district, the Warren County School System will not officially become an unaccredited school system until July 30, allowing high school seniors to graduate from an accredited school system this spring.

"It just breaks my heart, and I just cry sometimes about it," Carey said. "It is my hope and expectation that our school board will be able to make improvements in the months to come."

Many of the accusations leveled against the Warren County Board of Education mirror those made in 2008 against members of the Clayton County Board of Education.

Warren County in 'perpetual paralysis'

The Warren County School System has only three schools -- one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school -- with a total enrollment of 730 pupils, according to Carey.

Eighty-eight percent of students in that school system were classified as "economically disadvantaged" and qualified for the federal government's free and reduced-price lunch program during the 2008-2009 school year, according to the Georgia Department of Education's web site.

SACS' Jan. 5 report on the Warren County School System outlines a list of problems involving that district's school board, including alleged ethics violations.

"There was ample evidence to support a finding that the effectiveness of the Warren County Board was in a state of 'perpetual paralysis,'" the SACS review team wrote in its report.

SACS placed the Warren County School System on probation in June 2009, and the district was given until November to fix the issues. The SACS review team that recommended the revocation of Warren County's accreditation visited the district in November.

SACS President Mark Elgart said governance issues in Warren County have had a negative effect on student achievement in the county's schools. "There has been a decline in student achievement," he said.

But Warren County Board of Education Chairperson Clara Roberts refuted the accusations made against members of her school board, saying that the board has always acted in a professional manner. She said school board members were shocked when a SACS review team came to the district last summer to conduct an investigation.

"This really has us puzzled," Roberts said.

Roberts said an issue in Warren County's case is that the Warren County School System is a charter school system, and therefore does not operate in the same manner as a traditional public school system. "The other school boards in Georgia don't have what we have," she said.

Elgart: Clayton a 'role model in two ways'

Elgart said Clayton County Public Schools was able to get its accreditation back last year because the Clayton County community fought to save its school system.

"Clayton County Public Schools is a role model in two ways," Elgart said. "One way is good because it showed what a community can do when it rallies around its school system. The other way is bad, and not something to be proud of, because it showed how bad things can get when a school system has governance issues that are not corrected."

After Elgart announced, in February 2008, that Clayton County Public Schools was facing the prospect of losing its accreditation, Clayton County residents began to organize, forming civic groups devoted primarily to addressing the accreditation issue.

Since then, an entirely new Clayton County Board of Education has been put into place, and a new superintendent has been hired. "Clayton did what it needed to do," Elgart said. "It needed a fresh start in order to be successful. It is now focused on the future."

Elgart said each school in the district must be evaluated as part of individual accreditation check-ups by the end of this year, and that the visits to each school have been set up to begin this spring. The schools will be evaluated in the area clusters that the district has set up under Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley's leadership. Each area cluster includes two to three high schools, and their feeder elementary and middle schools.

"We will begin those site visits this spring, and should be done by November," Elgart said.

School board reform bill still alive

Last year, Gov. Sonny Perdue introduced a school board reform bill that would, among several provisions, give the governor the authority to suspend school board members and appoint replacements if their school system's accreditation is revoked, or placed on probation.

Senate Bill 84 was passed in the state Senate last spring, but stalled in the House. As lawmakers got ready to resume work this month, Perdue renewed his calls for a law that would reform school boards.

"Any time someone loses their accreditation, things have really gone wrong," Perdue spokesman Chris Schrimpf said on Friday. "If you have tools at your disposal, you'd be able to do something to help resolve the problem, but Georgia law doesn't give the governor that authority to intervene. That's why it's so important that this school board reform bill be passed."

Elgart, the SACS president, said Clayton County Public Schools and the Warren County School System are not the only Georgia school systems to find their SACS accreditation jeopardized by governance issues. Another school district in the state, Randolph County Schools, near Albany, is on probation and is facing the prospect of losing its accreditation if improvement is not made in that system "in the next few months," he said.

A school system in North Carolina, and a school system in South Carolina, are in the same situation as Randolph County, Elgart said.

State Rep. Brooks Coleman (R-Duluth), chairman of the House Education Committee, said the governor's bill is still alive until the end of this year's legislative session, though it has been turned back over to the committee for re-approval.

Coleman said the committee discussed the bill on Thursday, and members of the governor's staff were questioned about its provisions.

He said there have been some minor revisions to the bill since last year, however, including shortening the number of days an ousted school board member has to file an appeal of his or her removal, from 60 days to 30 days, and adding a grandfather clause to a nepotism provision that would bar a potential school board member from sitting on a board for the school district that a relative is employed by.

The House Education Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill again Thursday, Coleman said.

"The bill passed [the committee] during the last session, and it's the same committee more or less, although we do have a few new members this year," Coleman said. "If the committee likes it, it'll pass."