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Clayton graduations may stay at Georgia Dome

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Public Schools is on track to hold its high school graduation ceremonies outside the county for the fifth straight year, according to the school system's top administrator.

Superintendent Edmond Heatley told members of the Clayton County Board of Education on Monday that he is leaning toward asking the board to approve holding this year's graduations at the Georgia Dome, in Atlanta. It was the graduation venue in 2009 and 2010. The ceremonies were at Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center in 2007 and 2008.

Heatley said a price tag for this year's ceremonies has not yet been finalized. The district paid about $70,000 to hold the ceremonies at the dome in 2010, he said. "For the last few years, we have used the Georgia Dome to hold eight graduations over a-day-and-a-half period," he said. "I would recommend we do the same this year ... When you look at the size, and the class of the event, it's money well spent."

Holding the high school graduations outside the county has been a bone of contention almost every year it has been done. The argument has often centered on keeping money spent by graduation attendees in Clayton County, versus not having a large-enough facility to accommodate the graduates and their families, without worrying about weather-related issues.

This year, however, there was little argument from board members. "It looks like the consensus of the board is to hold it at the Georgia Dome," said School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson, after the board meeting. "Everybody wanted it to be held in a nice setting, and the dome is definitely a nice place ... We want everybody to be able to enjoy a nice, dignified ceremony."

Whether the Georgia Dome remains Heatley's recommendation is yet to be seen. He said he will meet with officials at Atlanta Metropolitan College this week, about holding the ceremonies at the college's 1,200-seat gymnasium. His decision to do that came Monday night, after school board member, Wanda Smith, asked him to do so, citing the dome's rental costs, and an abundance of free parking at the school.

There is a fee to park in the Georgia Dome's parking lots. "Because of the money it would cost to rent the dome, I would like to see if we can get the ceremonies held at Atlanta Metropolitan College," Smith said. She told Heatley, however, that she did not have an estimate on how much it would cost to rent the college's gymnasium.

School Board Vice Chairperson Ophelia Burroughs countered Smith's recommendation, by saying the district might as well hold it in one of Clayton County's high school gymnasiums. "If we're talking about holding it in a gymnasium, we might as well go to Charles Drew [high school, in Riverdale]," she said. "That way, we won't have to pay anyone."

School board member, Mary Baker, said she opposed holding the ceremonies in a 1,200-seat gymnasium, because it would place limits on how many people each graduate could bring to the event. "That only allows three people per graduate," she said.

When Charles R. Drew High School was under construction, in late 2008, district officials said it would have the largest gymnasium in the county. It was designed to house more than 1,800 students. On Monday, however, Heatley and School System Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson could not remember exactly how many people could be seated in Drew's gymnasium.

One thing is for certain, however, about the graduation ceremonies -- Heatley said, regardless of where the ceremonies are held, the district will not provide transportation to, and from, the ceremonies, this year. In the past, it has done that, at no cost, but it instituted a $5 per passenger fee for the 2010 graduations, to help cover the cost of the service.

The superintendent said it ended up costing far more money than the system took in from the rider fees. "Last year, we spent more than $7,000 to transport people to, and from, the ceremonies," he said. "We only re-couped $1,665 of that money ... So, I would not recommend we provide transportation this year."

The graduation venue could come up for a vote, by the board, as early as next week, at its Nov. 1, business meeting, according to School System Spokesman Charles White.