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Published in Print: September 3, 2008, as Loss of Accreditation Rocks Georgia District

Loss of Accreditation Rocks Georgia District

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In the end, six months of management reforms and the hiring of an experienced urban superintendent failed to keep the Clayton County, Ga., school district from becoming the nation’s first district in nearly four decades to have its accreditation stripped.

Last week’s decision by an accrediting agency—capping nearly a year of investigations involving the Clayton County school board—could complicate everything from students’ college applications to teachers’ continuing education credits.

But the Aug. 28 move also brought swift assurances from state officials that they would work to prevent harm to students from a penalty blamed squarely on members of the suburban Atlanta district’s dysfunctional school board.

State Rep. Mike Glanton tries to calm Clayton County school board member-elect Jessie Goree after an Aug. 28 meeting in Decatur, Ga., where they learned the Clayton County schools would lose their accreditation.
State Rep. Mike Glanton tries to calm Clayton County school board member-elect Jessie Goree after an Aug. 28 meeting in Decatur, Ga., where they learned the Clayton County schools would lose their accreditation.
—John Spink/Journal Constitution/AP

The decision revoking accreditation “is not reflective of the many excellent educators and students in Clayton County,” said state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox, in a statement issued shortly after the Atlanta-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, made the announcement.

And she said that Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue’s removal of four board members that same day offers the three who remain and others to be elected to the nine-member body by November “a window of opportunity” to work toward regaining the 50,000-student district’s accreditation.

In a set of “talking points” released after the decision was announced, Clayton County’s “corrective superintendent,” John W. Thompson, who was hired April 23, vowed to continue fighting for the district.

“While this is obviously not the news we were anticipating, we remain determined to continue the work we have started and will not rest until our accreditation is fully restored,” his statement said.

Mr. Thompson, a former schools chief in Tulsa, Okla., and Pittsburgh, also told parents that “this has nothing to do with the quality instruction that goes on in our classrooms every day.”

The Clayton County board could appeal the decision by Sept. 8. That appeal would go before a separate commission convened by the AdvancED Accreditation Commission, the parent organization of the Southern regional agency.

Kathy Christie, the chief of staff of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said that while there are “always some issues around lay board governance,” the behavior of the Clayton County board members was “absolutely not typical” of school boards across the country.

The last school system to lose its accreditation was the Duval County, Fla., district in 1969.

At the same time, she said, Clayton County’s loss of accreditation should be a warning to other boards that are struggling and to communities that they need to pay close attention to the citizens they recruit to run in board elections.

Ethics Accusations

While Clayton County has been on probation from the regional accrediting group before, the school system’s most recent serious troubles began almost a year ago when some board members accused others of unethical behavior.

In a February report, the accrediting group, known as SACS, said its investigation revealed numerous examples of impropriety. ("Loss of Accreditation Looming in Georgia for Troubled District," March 26, 2008.)

They included violations of open-meetings laws; a vote by one member to give a raise to his wife, a teacher in the district; a vote by another to give her husband a job; and a member’s vote on pay and benefit issues affecting the local, for-profit teachers’ union to which he belongs.

The accrediting group gave Clayton County until Sept. 1 to make major improvements in its school governance or lose its accreditation.

The process came to a head when a review team visited the district Aug. 14-15 to determine whether the board and the district had met nine mandates set by the accrediting body in a Feb. 15 report.

In making the case for Clayton County’s continued accreditation, Mr. Thompson submitted more than 2,000 pages of documents intended to show that the board and the district had made dramatic improvements in recent months.

“You will find extensive evidence of a process of change that has been undertaken and that will continue,” the report said.

But that failed to persuade the accrediting officials. The final decision was made Aug. 26 by Advanced, a 31-member group of educators and other professionals that represents more than 6,000 school districts across the country. It was announced by SACS two days later.

Falling Short

Mark Elgart, the president and chief executive officer of SACS, said the Clayton County school board has succeeded in meeting only one of the nine mandates laid out earlier this year: ensuring that all members of the board are legal residents of the county.

Key Dates

November 2007: The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools begins investigating the district after receiving complaints from some school board members about improprieties on the part of other members.

February 15: A report from SACS recommends that the district’s accreditation be revoked Sept. 1 unless it can meet nine mandates, including the enactment of an ethics policy and steps to remove the influence of outside groups on the school system.

March 3: Board member Norreese Haynes, who works for a local, for-profit teachers’ union in the county, is voted off the board after police say he doesn’t reside in Clayton County.

March 15: AdvancED, the parent organization of SACS, unanimously votes to uphold the recommendation to revoke accreditation.

April 2: Ericka Davis, the chairwoman of the board, resigns.

April 23: John W. Thompson is hired as a “corrective superintendent.”

April 24: Glenn Brock, a lawyer hired by the board to help them meet the mandates, quits, saying the board has acted unethically.

April 28: Eddie White, who has been chosen chairman of the board, resigns.

April 30: two state board of education members, appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue to work with the board, ask to be removed from their assignment, saying they can’t work with such a dysfunctional board.

May: More than 30 candidates qualify to run for the Clayton County school board.

July 2: Gov. Perdue asks a state administrative judge to review a complaint from Clayton residents asking that seven board members be removed.

July 16: Board member David Ashe resigns.

July 19: Alieka Anderson and Trinia Garrett, two new board members elected in a July 15 primary, are sworn in.

Aug. 12: Board member Rod Johnson resigns.

Aug. 25: Another new board member, Michael King, elected during an Aug. 4 runoff, is sworn in.

Aug. 28: Mark Elgart, president and chief executive officer of SACS, announces that the Clayton County district would lose its accreditation, effective Sept. 1.

On the rest, he said, the board has not provided “evidence of substantive progress or completion,” and the conflict between the board members is “still evident.”

He said the decision to revoke the district’s accreditation came with “great concern and disappointment,” but he added that if the board members committed to meeting the necessary steps, the district could regain accreditation as early as this school year.

Among the challenges still facing the board and district are establishing a functioning governing board, continuing to remove the negative influence of outside groups, and implementing the provisions of an ethics law passed earlier this year by the state legislature.

Mr. Elgart also said the board needs to clarify its relationship with Mr. Thompson, who he said has the experience and the qualifications to lead the district but “came into this process very late.”

But Mr. Elgart warned that the Clayton County board has only until Sept. 1, 2009, to meet the mandates, or it would have to begin the process again, which could take two to three years.

Shadow Over District

The accreditation loss could have implications beyond the district’s governance.

The next class of high school graduates, for example, could have a harder time getting into some colleges and universities and receiving scholarships.

Mr. Elgart tried to ease parents’ fears by saying that students from nonaccredited schools do get accepted to college. Graduates, he said, will also receive valid diplomas next year even if the district’s accreditation has not been reinstated.

State officials already have intervened to minimize the harm to students.

In April, Gov. Perdue, a Republican, signed a bill that will allow students graduating from Clayton County schools to continue to receive Georgia’s lottery-financed hope Scholarships. That grace period will end in 2010.

Some Georgia colleges have also said they would be willing to treat Clayton applicants as if they were home-schooled, or went to a private school, which means that they might need to take an additional test for admission.

Still, many parents pulled their students out of the district before school started earlier in August, instead of waiting for the sacs decision. Enrollment has dropped by about 2,000 students compared with last school year.

The decision also could affect teachers.

Jeff Hubbard, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, a National Education Association affiliate, said that credits teachers earn from professional-development training offered by Clayton County will not be recognized by other districts for recertification if teachers seek employment in another district.

Clayton County teachers’ state retirement benefits are protected. But Mr. Hubbard voiced concern about the effect on teachers’ positions if students continue to flee the district.

The loss of accreditation also could pose a threat to the state-funded prekindergarten program in the district, although the 28 schools that have received money to offer the program for the 2008-09 school year will be able to keep it for now.

Holly Robinson, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, which administers the pre-K program, said her agency is “influenced” by the SACS decision, but has the authority to allow the Clayton County schools to continue as contractors.

“We will do what is right for children and families, and continue to closely monitor the classrooms for quality and compliance,” she said.

Larry O’Keefe, a Clayton County resident who helped write the new ethics legislation for the school board and is the parent of a senior at Morrow High School, said the decision “was disappointing to say the least.”

“They have made progress,” he said. But he added that “the main factor is still the functionality of the board. There is a culture change that is necessary.”

Some of that change already has taken place. Earlier this year, parents, other citizens, community organizations, the teachers’ union, and even state officials repeatedly asked the board members to resign. Four eventually did, and a fifth was removed by the board.

Weeks of hearings before a state administrative judge then led to Gov. Purdue’s order last week removing four members who had been at the center of the controversy.

That leaves three board members elected over the summer. The governor has said that those members can appoint three more; the rest of the seats will be filled in a special election in September and in the general election in November.

Mr. Elgart, of SACS, noted in his press conference last week that Clayton County is certainly not alone in having school board governance problems.

“This is a challenge facing every state,” he said, but he added that Georgia could also be “a model for the nation” because it is already addressing the problem “comprehensively.”

Vol. 28, Issue 02, Pages 1,13

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