Clayton’s last accreditation crisis had long-lasting effects

JONESBORO — Clayton County Public Schools is still recovering from its last brush with education infamy, more than four years after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked the district’s accreditation.

The school system had an enrollment of 52,029 students during the 2007-2008 school year, according to Georgia Department of Education records. Thousands of students left the district in the summer of 2008 in anticipation of a possible loss of accreditation. State records show the district’s official enrollment during the 2008-2009 school year was 48,749 students.

The district’s enrollment has been slow to bounce back. It just hit 51,008 students earlier this month.

With SACS expressing new concerns over the way school board members govern the school system, much of what may happen next can be guessed by looking at the last two accreditation crises in 2003 and 2008. Clayton County school boards do not have a good track record of surviving accreditation crises.

Only one person on school board in 2003 — former school board member Ericka Davis — survived the probation levied on the district that year.

Neither Davis, or the eight people who replaced the 2003 board members, survived the loss of accreditation in 2008, however. The members of that incarnation of the school board either quit voluntarily or were forcibly removed by their colleagues and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

“What I see is a county that is bleeding, and as I sit here as a citizen, I see no end in sight to the bleeding,” Davis told Clayton News Daily on April 3, 2008. “We are constantly finding new and creative ways to point fingers at each other ... Eventually, we’re going to reach a point where no one will feel like they want to live here.”

The outgoing board members’ behavior in office caused enough alarm in Georgia that the state General Assembly enacted massive school board reforms. Those reforms included new, statewide ethical standards for school board members, and revised requirements for running for a school board seat. The changes also gave the governor’s office greater authority to intervene when a school system loses accreditation.

“Never again do I intend for the state to be handcuffed by our current law, and powerless to help students who are being failed by the adults in their community,” said Perdue, in January 2009, when he announced the proposed reforms.

The ouster of the old school board lead to the seating of the current board, as the current board members trickled into office throughout late 2008.

Five board members now find themselves facing their first re-election bids this fall.

While former board members faced obstacles to staying in office during previous accreditation crises, home sales and the county’s economy — already hurt by a weakened national economy — also took beatings from which they are still struggling to come back.

Last year, a redevelopment consultant hired by the city of Morrow told the town’s city council that developers were refusing to come into Clayton County because of the poor public perception of Clayton County schools. That perception, the consultant told Morrow City Council members, was fueled by the loss of accreditation.

“We talked to a lot of folks — developer folks, investors, others involved in development — and they kinda put a big, red ‘X’ over Clayton County for now,” consultant Todd Noell told the Morrow City Council on Jan. 14, 2011. “They said the challenges with schools, which you are working through, and some of the other question marks out there, have really made them hold off on investing in this area.”