Clayton school board chairwoman says governor may need to step in

Clayton County Schools timeline

Tuesday: Clayton school Superintendent Ed Heatley receives a "letter of concern" from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the school accrediting agency. The letter questions whether the school board is having issues similar to those that caused the system to lose accreditation in 2008.

January 2012: Reports say board members have been preoccupied lately with personality clashes, sanctions against fellow board members and other drama.

August 2011: The school system celebrates accreditation being restored.

May 2009: Accreditation is restored on a probationary basis

August 2008: SACS revokes accreditation for the Clayton County School District.

The chairwoman of the Clayton County school board says the governor may need to intervene and remove some school board members to save the school system from losing accreditation again.

“We’ve had troubles on the board. We’ve had troubles for a long time,” Chairwoman Pamela Adamson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday.

The school system of about 51,000 students lost accreditation in 2008, prompting then-Gov. Sonny Perdue to remove four of the nine school board members for infighting, micromanagement and other governance issues.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting agency for most Georgia public schools, warned outgoing Superintendent Ed Heatley Tuesday that board governance issues could again jeopardize the system’s accreditation. The issues include conflicts between board members and attacks by some board members on the school system and its personnel, wrote Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, the parent company of SACS.

“There are reports that individual board members are operating independent of the school system and under the influence of outside agents,” Elgart’s letter said. The accreditation agency, he said, has heard reports of individual board members threatening to sue each other, refusing to comply with board policies and berating Clayton school employees in public.

“We’ve done everything we know to do,” Adamson said. “Personally, and not speaking for the board, the only thing I know we can do is reach out to the governor.”

Brian Robinson, spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, said Wednesday Deal “has shown that he’ll take strong and immediate action when these issues reach his desk.”

But, he said, state law is very specific on when the governor can step in, and that’s “not been triggered in this instance.”

Georgia law only allows the governor to intervene if the system is placed on the level of accreditation warning immediately preceding loss of accreditation, and only then upon recommendation of the state Board of Education, Robinson said.

Adamson said a majority of the school board members are working diligently to help the school system, which regained accreditation in 2011. But “certain board members have caused trouble almost since Day 1,” she said. Adamson declined to identify the school board members, but said one board member sent about 1,000 emails to Heatley in a 20-month period.

“He was so inundated he couldn’t do his job,” Adamson said, adding that a majority of the school board voted to change its protocol for how board members should communicate with the superintendent.

The board also has issued reprimands and imposed sanctions on individual members. Board member Jessie Goree was barred from serving as board chair or vice chair for two years and from collecting expense money for conferences and other travel, according to information on the school system’s website.

Goree was rebuked twice by the board — once for making derogatory remarks about board members and the superintendent and once based on a complaint by Heatley about her conduct at a meeting with parents, according to news reports.

Goree acknowledged some friction on the board. “It’s normal stuff that happens when you have nine people trying to have a discussion,” she said. “There’s no perfection here.”

New SACS scrutiny comes just as Clayton is losing its superintendent. Heatley leaves the school system Friday after three years. He was in his office Wednesday but did not respond to requests for interviews.

Asked whether his departure is related to conflicts with some board members, Adamson said: “I wouldn’t be surprised. I know he has endured constant attacks since he’s been here.”

State Rep. Roberta Abul Salamm, D-Riverdale, said she wasn’t surprised by SACS’ concerns.

“For the last couple of years, I’ve heard some horror stories from administrators and teachers — even some of the things I’ve observed at the school board meetings,” she said. “I knew we weren’t in the healthiest position.”

Claudia Ross, mother of two former Clayton County students and one current student, has been attending board meetings since 2008. Ross said board member discussions often end in stalemates. The board needs a mediator to teach them how to communicate and run their meetings more efficiently, she said.

“You have board members that want to do right. But there are some board members who refuse to give in. They need to learn that it’s OK to disagree,” Ross said.

Catherine Harris, whose daughter is in second grade at Riverside Elementary School, said questions about the district’s accreditation concern her and reaffirm her goal of leaving the district.

“I’ve been trying to move out of Clayton County. I never wanted my daughter to start here,” she said.

At North Clayton High School, several younger students said they are pleased with the school and don’t plan on transferring. But seniors at the school said they regret not leaving earlier.

Kesha Williams, 18, said she considered leaving the district when it lost accreditation in 2008, but her parents wouldn’t move from their house around the corner from the school.

Losing accreditation has the potential to hurt both students and school systems. Graduates’ chances at college acceptance — especially out of state — can be diminished when their diplomas are from unaccredited schools. It also can tarnish a community’s image, particularly with business prospects, who see a good school system as a quality of life issue for employees.

“If my credits don’t count, yeah, that would concern me,” Williams said.

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