The Clayton County, Ga., school district is now on the brink of being the first school system in nearly four decades—and the first ever in Georgia—to lose its accreditation, after a vote this month by a national school accrediting group to enforce a Sept. 1 deadline for major improvements.
The loss of accreditation would mean that students in the 53,000- student district, south of Atlanta, could have trouble being accepted to college, that high school graduates wouldn’t be eligible for the state’s HOPE college scholarships, and that the district would not be allowed to offer the state-financed pre-K program.
“The opportunity is up to them,” Mark Elgart, the president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta- based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, a regional accrediting body, said in an interview after the March 15 Chicago meeting in which the group’s parent body affirmed the September deadline.
But Mr. Elgart added that he has little faith that members of the Clayton County school board can implement the recommendations without “significant intervention” from outside experts.
To district officials, the national group’s vote came as no surprise. Glenn Brock, a lawyer for the school board, called the Chicago meeting of the AdvancED Accreditation Commission, the regional accreditation group’s parent, a formality.
In a report issued Feb. 15, SACS portrayed a bickering and dysfunctional school board, and charged unethical behavior on the part of board members.
The Clayton County, Ga., school district must take action in nine areas in order to avoid losing its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools:
• Establish a governing board capable of fulfilling its roles and responsibilities.
• Remove the influence of outside groups/individuals that are disruptive to the work of the school district.
• Enact and commit to an ethics policy that governs the actions and work of the members of the board of education and staff, including appropriate steps when the policy is violated.
• Implement a comprehensive review of board policies that includes training for board members on the purpose and expectations of those policies.
• Conduct a full, forensic audit of financials by an independent, certified accounting firm and take appropriate steps to address the findings.
• Conduct a comprehensive audit of student-attendance records and take appropriate steps to ensure that those records are accurate and meet legal requirements.
• Ensure that each member of the board is a legal resident of the county and is eligible to hold the elected seat on the board.
• Secure outside consultants with expertise in conflict resolution, governance, and organizational effectiveness.
•Appoint a permanent superintendent with the experience and expertise to lead the school district and establish the proper conditions for effectiveness.
SOURCE: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
It gave the board six months to “show cause” that the district should remain accredited, either by refuting the accusations presented in the report or by demonstrating significant progress in nine areas. They include enacting and committing to an ethics policy, using outside consultants who are experts in conflict resolution, and hiring a permanent superintendent who can “establish the proper conditions for effectiveness.”
If the district’s accreditation is revoked, it would have one year to work toward reinstatement. If that failed, it would need to begin the process from scratch, which could take two to three years, Mr. Elgart said.
Only a few other districts in the nation have approached the situation faced by the Clayton County district.
In 1969, the Duval County school district in Florida, now with 124,000 students, lost its accreditation, but all its schools are now accredited. And in 2005, SACS recommended that the 1,600-student Lanier County school district, in southern Georgia, lose its accreditation. But Lanier County was able to meet the recommendations in the “show cause” time frame.
School accreditation, which predates and is separate from the system of performance targets and sanctions set up under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, is a process that involves meeting a set of guidelines focused on school improvement and governance that are evaluated by outside professionals, not government officials.
In addition to the regional accrediting groups, some states still accredit schools on their own, although that process has largely become part of their accountability systems for education. In the case of Clayton County, however, the district is experiencing governance problems that the state’s accountability program does not address.
The national organization overseeing the Clayton County accreditation, AdvancED, was formed in 2006 through the combination of SACS, the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement, and the National Study of School Evaluations, the AdvancedED research arm.
AdvancED, which has offices in Schaumberg, Ill.; Decatur, Ga.; and Tempe, Ariz., represents more than 23,000 public and private schools in 30 states and 65 countries, including more than 6,000 school districts.
SACS’ current investigation into the Clayton County district, which it had examined on a separate occasion several years ago, started in October after some board members began to launch accusations of impropriety against each other.
According to the SACS report, the violations include a vote by a board member for a raise that would benefit his wife, a teacher in the district; a vote by another member to give her husband a job in the district; and a vote by a third member to fire a football coach who wouldn’t give her videotapes of her son’s games.
Four of the board members are also aligned with a for-profit professional group called the Metro Association of Classroom Educators, or MACE, which regularly stages protests at school board meetings.
The school board has already made a few moves to address the issues in the report, such as considering the appointment of what they are calling a “corrective superintendent,” who would be hired to specifically pull the district out of its mess. The district currently has an interim superintendent, Gloria Duncan.
At its March 3 meeting, the board also voted to declare vacant the seat held by Norreese Haynes, also the executive director of MACE, because he doesn’t actually reside in the county.
But members of the public, outraged by the behavior of board members, have called for all the members to resign, and Mr. Elgart has himself said that he doesn’t believe the current members will be able to overcome their difficulties and keep the district’s accreditation.
As the first district in Georgia this close to losing its accreditation, Clayton County has prompted state leaders to do what they can to provide help. But state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox said in a Feb. 22 press release that state officials “have limited legal authority over issues of accreditation and local governance.”
Still, Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, last month appointed two state school board members as special liaisons to work as advisers to the district. He also called for audits of the district’s finances and student attendance records, as well as a review of board elections.
And in the state legislature, a Republican lawmaker is sponsoring a bill to create a private-schoolvoucher program specifically for students attending schools that lose their accreditation or persistently underperform.
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as Loss of Accreditation Looming in Georgia for Troubled District