A Local Feud Proves Toxic
Facing the loss of accreditation, a troubled Georgia school district struggles with the legacy of its fractious, dysfunctional board.
In his well-tailored dark suit, and standing at least a head taller than the reporters surrounding him, John W. Thompson tried to display confidence about the tremendous challenge before him: keeping the Clayton County public school system from losing its accreditation Sept. 1.
But at a joint news conference just two days into his job as “corrective superintendent,” Mr. Thompson heard from state officials assigned by Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to work with the district that the task of untangling its governance mess might be virtually impossible.
“I’m not sure any superintendent can fix this,” state school board member William Bradley Bryant said at the April 30 event. In a letter to the governor, he and fellow board member James E. Bostic Jr. even asked to be released from the duty Mr. Perdue had assigned them, a request the governor granted. The two said their efforts to work with members of the warring Clayton County school board had been “unwelcome and disregarded.”
The stakes could hardly be higher in a school leadership crisis that has dragged on since last fall and which threatens to make the 52,000-student Atlanta-area district the first nationally in almost 40 years to lose its accreditation.
Loss of that crucial seal of approval, in this case from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or sacs, could mean future Clayton County graduates would have trouble being accepted to college or would miss out on merit scholarships.
And while the situation here in Clayton County is clearly extreme, it also serves as a warning to elected school board members nationwide that their behavior in office can have severe consequences for their districts in an era of increased accountability.
“What we’re trying to do is help boards set goals for schools, be strategic, and to forget all the adult games that end up distracting people,” said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va.
Calls for Board Reform
Clayton County’s proximity to a major media market may have intensified attention to its leadership troubles, which include charges of ethics violations and procedural infractions, against a backdrop of board infighting.
But the problem of board members who exceed their authority and pursue their own agendas is not unique.
Florida’s 43,000-student Collier County school district, which includes Naples, also has suffered from governance headaches involving its board and could face probation or the eventual loss of accreditation after the regional accrediting body visits this week.
Mark Elgart, the executive director of sacs and the official who wrote the report on the Clayton County district, said there has been a trend in Georgia and elsewhere “toward board governance losing sight of its role.”
Standards outlined by the Advanced Accreditation Commission, a national group of which sacs is a part, speak of boards and leaders that establish a vision for a district, a plan for improvement and who collaborate and enact policies that work toward that vision.
That’s a sharp contrast to the situation in Clayton County, where members have feuded with each other, intimidated staff members, and undermined the work of administrators, critics say.
Mr. Elgart added that with the heightened demands for school performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, “there is a much greater need for boards and superintendents to provide leadership.”
Even before the investigation in Clayton County, Mr. Elgart said, sacs had started working with the Georgia state board of education to draft “board reform legislation” that would set minimum qualifications for local school board members, require them to meet certain expectations if they want to run again, and mandate training.
“Most state legislation is nonspecific about the roles of boards,” he said.
Several states do set minimum training requirements for serving on local school boards. In 2005, for example, a law was passed in Arkansas that increased the number of training hours for new school board members from six to nine. And earlier this year, a law passed in Mississippi that increased training for board members of districts with failing schools or serious financial problems.
But Kathy Christie, the chief of staff at the Education Commission of the States, in Denver, said such legislation “goes in spurts” and hasn’t been a recent trend.
Dysfunction—and Some Gains
Even among dysfunctional school boards, Clayton County stands out. And it presides over a school system that faces significant challenges. More than 70 percent of its students are from low-income families. The district also has adjusted to dramatic demographic changes in recent decades, as its student population shifted from predominantly white in the late 1980s to 73 percent African-American currently.
Nineteen of the district’s 59 schools failed to make adequate yearly progress under the nclb law in the 2006-07 school year. Even so, the graduation rate has been increasing—it now stands at 71 percent, up from 62.5 percent in the 2003-04 school year. Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, said that, in spite of the level of poverty in the district, “overall, they are making progress.”
Any such progress has been overshadowed, though, by the near-constant internal conflict that has engulfed the school board for months and which drew the attention of state officials and the regional accrediting agency.
The sacs investigation began last October after some board members leveled accusations of impropriety against others. In a Feb. 15 report, the accrediting group cited instances of improper procedure and unethical behavior on the part of board members.
They include 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 for-profit teachers’ union to which he belongs.
The accrediting agency—whose national parent organization represents more than 6,000 school districts in 30 states—gave the board six months to comply with nine specific measures to overhaul its governance, or the Clayton County district would lose its accreditation. (See Education Week, March 26, 2008.)
Board members and some residents here have felt singled out by the accrediting agency and blindsided by the intense day-to-day coverage from the Atlanta-area media.
But parents who have witnessed the public behavior of the board members in recent months—which included verbal abuse of district employees, open-meetings violations admitted by the board, and personnel votes by members with clear conflicts of interest—say the situation has been anything but exaggerated.
Charlton Bivins, the parent of a junior at the 1,600-student Jonesboro High School, described school board meetings as “Jerry Springer-like,” referring to the TV talk-show host’s notoriously raucous programs.
“It was so absurd, it appeared to be staged,” he said.
And Jo Ann Mitchell-Stringer, who has four children in the district, said, “Robert’s Rules were mutilated,” referring to the guide for running orderly meetings.
The conflicts already have led to upheaval on the board. Two members have now stepped down, and a third has said he will, although he has not given a specific date.
A fourth was ousted by his fellow board members—to the sound of cheering onlookers during a March 3 board meeting—because his official residency is in question. That member, Norreese Haynes, challenged the legality of his removal in a lawsuit, but a superior court judge has said the board’s decision stands. Mr. Haynes has vowed to continue his fight to be reinstated.
“Those with the integrity to resign will resign. The ones without the integrity will thumb their noses and stay until hell freezes over,” said Larry O’Keeffe, a parent in the district who helped write legislation, signed by Gov. Perdue on April 30, that creates a still-to-be set up local ethics panel to monitor actions of the board and hear ethics complaints.
Adding even more uncertainty to the question of who eventually will lead the district are the school board elections scheduled for this year.
So far, more than 30 candidates have qualified for seven seats on the nine-member board. Five of those seats already were up for election this year, and the other two belonged to Mr. Haynes and to former Chairwoman Ericka Davis, who has resigned.
The shape of the new Clayton County school board should become clear after voters go to the polls July 15. Barring a runoff, three of the open seats will be filled by Democrats on the primary ballot that day—no Republicans qualified—although two of those seats are now occupied by Democrats who face stiff challenges.
In addition, a special, non-partisan election will take place that same day to fill the two recently vacated seats.
Two other seats will be decided in November in a face-off between Democratic and Republican candidates.
In addition, paperwork has been filed for recall elections for the two seats that were not up for election this year, though a date has not been set.
Some residents are hoping that once the board’s new makeup is set, the current members will step aside even before their terms are officially up at the end of the year, and thus allow newly elected members to get to work on saving the district’s accreditation.
“The community is like a volleyball,” said Mary Baker, a Clayton County parent and a Democratic candidate for one of the open school board seats. “We don’t know what’s hitting us next.”
Still, the election of new members by itself won’t be enough to ensure that the district keeps its accreditation, said Mr. Elgart, the executive director of sacs.
“We want to see a functioning board,” he said. But he also noted that while seven of the nine requirements set down by the accrediting agency in its report apply to the board members, two of them focus on internal administrative matters.
A full forensic audit of the district’s student-attendance records is to be conducted because of accusations that discipline files and data on student subgroups—required for accountability purposes—may have been “modified,” Mr. Elgart said.
And an independent audit of the district’s books is being conducted because of concerns over the “financial fidelity” of the district, according to the sacs report.
Mr. Thompson, the former Tulsa, Okla., and Pittsburgh schools chief who was hired by the board as Clayton County’s “corrective superintendent,” takes issue with the sentiment that those who are left on the board are incapable of righting the leadership.
“Is the decision already made?” he said. “Is the jury already out?”
But even he acknowledged that he doesn’t have the power to do what most observers consider necessary to accomplish the first of the nine steps outlined in the sacs report: establishing a “governing board that is capable of fulfilling its roles and responsibilities.”
“I can’t make the board members resign,” he said.
Superintendent’s Tough Task
In spite of repeated calls for the school board’s resignation en masse, A. Michelle Strong, the board’s new chairwoman, said a sense of hope exists among the members that the district will remain accredited.
“I feel like we are headed in the right direction,” she said in an e-mail, and she assigned some of the credit to Mr. Thompson. “[He] has come in and instantaneously taken the torch and showed the leadership that the district needs. With his strong leadership and clear vision, we feel that Clayton County public school system will overcome the obstacles that are in front of us.”
Mr. Thompson is promising to have the district in good shape by mid-July. But his tenure has not been without controversy.
In the view of state officials, a “corrective” chief was meant to serve only for a few months while the district worked on staying accredited and while the board conducted a professional national search for a permanent superintendent, one of the nine specific remedies ordered by the accrediting agency.
Instead, the board hired Mr. Thompson for 14 months, is paying him $285,000 for that period, and is allowing him more than 100 vacation days—giving the local news media even more fodder for stories. (Cyd Cox, a parent in the district, called it “hazard pay.”)
Mr. Thompson has been given considerable leeway to make improvements, however. He has already asked school administrators, mostly principals, to reapply for their jobs, is working with board members, and is holding workshops for school board candidates. He also has said he wants to work on raising student test scores, and on anti-gang issues in the schools.
But Mr. Thompson will need to keep teachers from fleeing schools—an outcome that occurred five years ago when the district was on probation under sacs because of similar governance issues.
Some of the district’s top educators said in a recent gathering at the school system’s central office that they love working in Clayton County. But observers here say teachers are already attending job fairs and looking for positions elsewhere.
During his greeting to the teachers, Mr. Thompson praised the system, and described it as “on the verge of being a world-class school district.”
He exhorted teachers to share news of the district’s accomplishments, such as the Jonesboro High School team’s becoming a repeat champion this year at the national mock-trial competition in Delaware. And he said he would craft a marketing plan to give reporters something other than the accreditation deadline to cover.
Still, Sid Chapman, the president of the Clayton County Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said he expects an “exodus” of teachers from the district over the summer.
“They don’t know what the future will bring—and whether to hold on, or run,” he said.
He added that because so many left five years ago, the district’s teaching workforce is very young, with more than 70 percent having less than five years on the job. Many of those teachers have come into the classroom through alternative tracks, such as the Teacher Advancement Program, sponsored by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, in Santa Monica, Calif.
“We don’t have many seasoned teachers to say, ‘Everything is going to be OK,’ ” Mr. Chapman said.
Should the district lose accreditation, a likely side effect, Mr. Chapman said, is that programs like tap won’t place teachers in the district, and that universities won’t send their teacher-candidates to Clayton County for internships.
Questions for Students
Meanwhile, this year’s 11th graders and their parents may be the most anxious about what happens this summer. If the district loses its accreditation, they are the first ones who will be affected.
“I know sacs is just doing their job,” said Chelsea Bivins, the Jonesboro High junior who is Charlton Bivins’ daughter. “But I want to know what am I supposed to do?”
In addition to the ethics-panel legislation, Gov. Perdue has signed a bill that will allow students graduating from Clayton County schools to continue to receive Georgia’s lottery-financed hope Scholarships. But that grace period will only last for two years.
The University of Georgia has said that, even if the district loses accreditation, it will treat Clayton County students just like applicants from elsewhere in the state. Emory University and Spelman College, both in Atlanta, have said they will treat Clayton graduates as if they were home-schooled, or went to a private school, which means that they might need to take an additional test or have to jump through “extra hoops,” said Charles White, the district’s spokesman.
But those goodwill efforts to keep the district’s students from being penalized by the actions of the adults on the board aren’t very reassuring to Ms. Bivins, who wants to attend college out of state.
“Do I have to move,” she said, “and not graduate with my friends?”
Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman at the Washington-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, called any loss of accreditation “unhappy news” and agreed that there could be repercussions for students seeking admission from out-of-state institutions.
Though college hopefuls might be able to attach some explanation to their applications next year and be given some consideration, “I worry about the next cohort and the cohort after that,” he said.
Board in the Cross-Hairs
Even as state and local officials scramble to preserve the school district’s accreditation and mitigate the damage to students, discussion continues about how the board’s troubles might have been avoided.
Mr. Elgart of sacs said that in addition to the fact that many of the board members are new to public office, one factor that probably has contributed to the disruption on the board is that most of the members are educators themselves.
“The idea of a board is lay people assisting the professionals,” he said. “An educator is not a layperson.”
One of the steps that the accrediting body told Clayton County board members to take is to participate in training on their roles and responsibilities. So far, some have taken classes through an institute at the University of Georgia, in Athens.
But Mr. Elgart said that while some of the members have engaged in training, their participation has been spotty. The Georgia School Boards Association held an ethics workshop in late April, but none of the remaining Clayton County board members took part.
There may be some signs of hope, however. Jeannie M. “Sis” Henry, the executive director of the Georgia school boards’ group, said that before resigning, the Clayton County board’s former chairwoman asked for the association’s help once new board members are elected.
“Can dysfunctional boards improve? Absolutely,” said Ms. Henry, who has been training school board members for 30 years. “They have to hit bottom. But if they operate from good intent, and they are willing to operate as a team, I have seen school boards make dramatic changes.”
Vol. 27, Issue 39, Pages 21-23Published in Print: June 4, 2008, as A Local Feud Proves Toxic