The city of Riverdale was close to inking deals with two businesses that promised to bring more than 100 jobs combined to an area where jobs are badly needed. Likewise, a businessman was looking at buying and redeveloping a vacant strip mall in Lake City.
Those deals are on hold now, though, because the Clayton County school district may be in trouble again with a private national accrediting agency that pulled its accreditation four years ago, say county leaders with knowledge of the business deals.
In 2008, Clayton schools lost thousands of students and the county lost $20 million in federal education money when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools voided the district’s accreditation.
Accreditation was restored in 2011. Then, about three weeks ago, SACS warned that Clayton’s accreditation could be in jeopardy again because of new concerns about school board in-fighting and micromanaging.
Business and government leaders are worried about SACS’ latest action for a number of reasons:
- Dissatisfaction with Clayton’s schools could prompt families to leave the county, and few businesses are willing to move to an area that may lose residents because that means fewer customers.
- Good schools are the backbone of a community and are critical to attracting businesses, which depend on them to supply workers.
- Accreditation is a major factor for potential employees pondering where to live because some colleges and scholarship programs will not accept applicants from unaccredited schools.
“Every meeting you go to, every place you go, people are talking about it,” said Joy Day, mayor of Jonesboro, the county seat, which has lost 10 percent to 15 percent of its businesses in the last five years because of the recession and the accreditation loss. “Whether you have children in school or retired like me, it still affects every part of our society. The school system drives everything. It’s almost the measuring stick for the rest of the community in a lot of ways.”
In an unprecedented move, the mayors of Clayton’s seven towns have weighed in on the fray, vowing to fulfill a promise they made shortly after SACS voided accreditation in 2008.
“The mayors… told them [the previous school board] we’d never let this happen again,” Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt said.
Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Winn Dixon and Lovejoy Mayor Bobby Cartwright attended a school board meeting on Oct. 1 and offered use of their facilities for community forums. That’s when Winn Dixon told the school board about the two business deals that are now in jeopardy.
“I have been working with these companies several months to get them to come to the county,” Winn Dixon told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They didn’t say they definitely wouldn’t come. They’re just in a holding pattern.”
That news is a setback for Riverdale, which has enjoyed some economic vitality with the opening of its Town Center complex, complete with a 1,100-seat amphitheater, two years ago this month.
In Lake City, the businessman who wanted to buy the empty strip mall and open a grocery store and gym is now in a “wait and see” mode, said Oswalt, who has witnessed “some strife” at school board meetings.
It is rare, the mayors say, to be able to pinpoint a reason a business or individual decides against doing business in a community.
“A lot of times you don’t know why [they] didn’t come, but they infiltrate board meetings and commission meetings,” Oswalt said. “They know [what’s going on] before they come to the area. They’ve done their homework.”
Despite occasional good news — Porsche will begin building its North American headquarters on the outskirts of the county at the old Henry Ford plant this fall, and parts of the second movie in the “Hunger Games” trilogy are being filmed in Clayton — the county still hasn’t been able to shake the poor image left by the accreditation debacle.
Clayton’s economic development chief Grant Wainscott said his office hasn’t had any calls from businesses concerned about the school system’s latest problems, but he has had calls from recruiters, state economic development officials and others tied to bringing business to the state.
“They’re watching the situation and hoping there’s a quick remedy,” Wainscott said. Because of Clayton’s proximity to the airport, it has attracted at least a dozen companies — mainly in the logistics and transportation field — that have moved or expanded in and around the airport, bringing with them several hundred jobs since the beginning of this year, Wainscott said.
The Georgia Economic Development Department declined to speculate about Clayton’s latest worries.
“Clayton is on the same competitive field as every other county in the state,” spokeswoman Alison Tyrer said. “When we work with a company, it’s what’s on their list of requirements that we’re concerned with.”
College Park Mayor Jack Longino, who heads the Clayton County Municipal Association, said the seven-mayor group will deliver a message at the next school board meeting.
“It doesn’t take a real smart person to know what goes on when a school system goes down,” Longino said. “It’s not good for Fulton, Henry or Clayton when you’ve got a school system in between that’s not doing well. Every county, community or city that has no ability to school its children is a community on a train wreck.”
College Park straddles Clayton and Fulton counties.