Equity & Diversity

Board’s Conduct Threat To Ga. District

By John Gehring — November 26, 2003 6 min read
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The Clayton County, Ga., school board remains dogged by criticism that it lacks the leadership to do its job, months after the 50,000-student Atlanta-area school system was put on probation.

At issue are the actions of some of the nine members of the school board, which the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools says has created a “circus atmosphere” in the district.

The association placed the district on probation after an investigation by the accrediting agency last spring found that some board members had meddled in personnel issues and failed to follow policies.

If the district doesn’t make strides, it could lose its accreditation next June, which would mean that its students would no longer be eligible to receive Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships for college. Students also could face hurdles in admission to colleges and universities, because many require graduates of unaccredited schools to be tested in specific subjects or to pass Advanced Placement exams to assure the rigor of their high school classes.

Many parents and community members are outraged over board members’ behavior and argue that their conduct has tarnished the district’s reputation so badly that the board’s leaders should step down.

But school board members have refused to step aside, charging at times that they are being unfairly targeted because they are black. They have also questioned the authority of the accrediting agency.

Neither Nedra Ware, the chairwoman of the board, nor its vice chairwoman, Connie Kitchens, responded to requests for an interview. Both are veteran teachers in the neighboring Fulton County school system. None of the other board members would be interviewed, and district officials declined to discuss the situation.

“This matter has truly torn at our county in ways that no one could have imagined,” said Tom McBrayer, one of several parents who formed the Clayton County Coalition for Quality Education. “All you have to do is drive around the county and look at the number of real estate signs.”

Racial Tension

Race is never far from the surface when the school board is brought up.

Clayton County, located just south of Atlanta, has experienced significant demographic change over the past few decades, moving from a predominantly white district 20 years ago to one that is now 71 percent African-American and 11 percent white.

With the election a year ago of a fifth black board member, the Clayton County school board became the county’s first political body with a black majority.

In January, Ms. Ware and Ms. Kitchens were selected by its members to lead the board. Its first action was to fire the district’s white superintendent in a 13-minute meeting. Soon after, the board appointed an African-American woman who had lived in the district for only four days to fill a seat vacated by a white member who had resigned. The board currently has six black and three white members.

Some local residents say they are tired of what they see as divisive racial politics being played at the expense of children.

“Everything is about race for them,” said Michelle Jackson, a parent of two students in the Clayton County schools. “I’m black, and I’m so upset with our community because we vote for people just because they are black without knowing what they are really about.

“We have a dysfunctional school board, which creates dysfunctional schools,” she continued. “I don’t care what color you are. If you’re incompetent, you’re incompetent.”

Mark Elgart, who oversees the investigation for the accrediting agency, said board leaders’ assertions that race was a factor in the decision to put the district on probation were mistaken.

“The racial element that has been alleged is not accurate,” he said. “The bottom line is people must assume full responsibility for their roles, and that hasn’t happened.”

‘Slim Progress’

A follow-up visit last month by investigators from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools concluded that the board must make substantial progress before the probation can be lifted. The school board this month began drawing up a written plan for complying with improvement measures outlined by the accrediting body.

Mr. Elgart said the visit revealed “slim progress,” but noted signs of improvement, including a national search for a superintendent and board members’ participation in training from the Georgia School Boards Association.

The initial investigation, in May, was prompted when officials received complaints from employees that the board was micromanaging school operations.

Several staff members who were transferred by interim Superintendent William Chavis told a review team that Mr. Chavis had said he was instructed to make the moves by board members.

According to the report, the interim superintendent told investigators he was “just a figurehead for the board.” The report concluded that the board’s leadership had fostered a “circus atmosphere” in the district.

Daniel Colwell, the superintendent fired abruptly by the board in January, defiantly showed up for work to find locks on his office door. About 700 people turned out at a school board meeting to show their support for him a few days later.

Mr. Colwell, who sued the board, accepted a $232,000 settlement in January.

His firing helped set off an investigation of the school board by a Clayton County grand jury. The two-month examination resulted in a six-page report that found no illegal activity, but encouraged the board to take steps to regain public confidence.

The firing of Mr. Colwell was the “spark that lit the fire,” according to Mr. McBrayer, who is white. “There was a sense by the new chair and vice chair that they had infinite authority to act for the entire board and dictate actions within the school system.”

The Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, the Clayton County Educators Association, the Metro Association of Classroom Educators, and the Clayton County Municipal Association—a group that represents the county’s six municipal mayors—are on record as calling for the board’s leaders to resign.

Sis Henry, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, said that district board members have improved in working together as a group. But they’ve been under pressure, she noted: At a two-day retreat in the spring arranged by the association, four television reporters and other journalists were a constant reminder of the fishbowl the board operates in now.

“You have people who are well- intentioned and who are right now operating under a microscope,” she said.

Gloria Adams, a former middle school principal who spent more than a decade in the Clayton County system, said the board controversy persuaded her to take an early retirement in June.

“I have never seen anything like this where I have worked,” she said. “Even my students began asking me about the board. That’s a horrible thing for kids to have to worry about.”

Elizabeth Armstrong, a community resident who is African-American and has confronted the board at meetings, believes some members care more about wielding control over a school system with a $300 million budget than in working as a group to improve education.

“There have been power struggles over who is going to run this and who is going to run that,” Ms. Armstrong said. “Everyone has their hidden agenda.”

But unlike some residents who have moved, Ms. Armstrong is sticking around. “We are not going to leave,” she said. “We’re going to stay and fight.”

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