JONESBORO By Curt Yeomans
JONESBORO — Clayton County Public Schools is not yet at the point where it could lose its accreditation but things could get bad if politics are not removed from the district’s environment, said the head of the school system’s accrediting agency.
Mark Elgart, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and its parent group, AdvancEd, said his group is trying to stop the Clayton County Board of Education from heading down a path of destruction similar to that which led to past accreditation woes in the county. He said with an accreditation review scheduled for next year, the school board has to decide whether to address increasing amounts of friction among board members or let the issues continue to build and destabilize the district.
SACS, which has been monitoring Clayton schools for years, has seen evidence that problems which led to accreditation crises in 2003 and 2008 are starting to re-emerge in the district, said Elgart.
“We’re trying to be proactive in that we’re identifying things we’re seeing,” he said. “We’re not ready to say these are problems that would require an investigation, but we’re saying, ‘You have an evaluation coming up in the spring and you need to have your house in order.’ ”
Although SACS is raising the warning flag about issues which could build into serious problems if they are not corrected, Elgart said county residents should not turn into "Chicken Little" over the agency’s concerns. He said although Clayton’s repeated brushes with accreditation issues make it unique in the metro Atlanta area, it is not so different from other districts on a national scale.
School systems across the county are dealing with the same problems, including districts as near as Birmingham, Ala., and Wake County, N.C., Elgart said.
Still, Elgart said parents should demand the board address the issue of factions on the board and in-fighting between board members now rather than later.
“We’re trying to prevent a 'sky is falling' situation,” said Elgart.
He added it’s “too soon” for parents to begin worrying about making difficult decisions about whether their children should stay in the school system.
“But I think parents should say ‘We’re not going to go down that path again, you fix this right now and you make the adjustments so we don’t even have to talk about this again,’ ” said Elgart.
Board Chairwoman Pamela Adamson said the majority of board members behave themselves and put the needs of the district’s 51,008 students first.
However, Elgart said there are as many as four people — nearly half the Board of Education — about whom SACS has concerns. He declined to identify those board members.
Elgart said one step that could force board members to do a better job is having more people challenge them for their seats when they run for re-election. In 2010, three of four board members up for re-election faced challengers, but Adamson and Michael King defeated their opponents by large margins. Aleika Anderson had no challenger.
District 9 representative Charlton Bivins was the only one who faced a serious challenge. He failed to reach the 50 percent mark needed to win the July 20, 2010, primary election but won in a run-off with former Clayton County Housing Authority Board Chairman James Searcy.
None of the board members faced Republican challengers, so the 4,775 people who voted in the state Republican primary for governor never got a say in who would represent them on the school board.
“They do have a lot of elections where there’s no choice [because] you have people with no competition,” said Elgart. “Is the community paying attention to board members who are being effective, or are they continuing to re-elect the familiar name on the ballot?”
Twelve people have signed up to run for the five school board seats contested Nov. 6. District 3 representative Jessie Goree is the only one running unopposed.
One thing SACS doesn’t want to see repeated, however, is a history of superintendents being forced out when there is a change in the school board’s makeup. Three times in the last 10 years, a newly-formed board affected a change in superintendents.
After some wrangling, the board fired then-Superintendent Dan Colwell as soon as new board members took office in January 2003.
Barbara Pulliam, Colwell’s successor, lasted more than three years, but she quit seven months after three new board members came into office in 2007. At the time, some observers speculated she was forced to resign.
In March 2009, former Superintendent John Thompson was fired nearly three months after four new board members took office. Thompson had led the district for a year before he was fired and the board never gave an explanation for his termination.
Outgoing Superintendent Edmond Heatley was the district’s only longterm superintendent in the last decade who came in, and ultimately left, under the same board and of his own accord. He tendered his resignation last month to pursue an unsuccessful bid to become the superintendent of schools in Berkeley, Calif.
Elgart said the school board should bring in an outside firm to help find a replacement for Heatley. He said “99 percent” of school systems similar in size to Clayton County bring in outside search firms rather than try to hire a superintendent themselves.
“They don’t try to do it by themselves because you’re trying to ask for somebody who can come in and be the head of a nearly $750 million-a-year operation,” said Elgart. “These board members are not, first off, hiring experts. They’re not professionals. They’re lay people and you need an expert to lead you through that process.“