Like the rest of the nation, 2008 was not a good year for Clayton County.
The economic collapse left the county with huge layoffs, bank accounts were wiped out and the south metro community became ground zero for home foreclosures.
It was also notable for another reason — the Clayton school system lost its accreditation that year because of a dysfunctional board of education that undermined administrators, impeded efforts to curriculum improvements and failed to follow open meetings laws, among other issues.
“It was due to a few people making certain choices that affected hundreds of thousands of people in the end,” said Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day, who was principal of her city’s Suder Elementary School at the time of the accreditation loss.
VIDEO: Previous coverage of Clayton County Schools
Fast forward 10 years later, Clayton is back in the good graces of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which oversees school accreditation, and has a new superintendent that many say is changing the district for the better. This comes as the county is seeing a boom in the construction of distribution centers, especially around Fort Gillem in Forest Park. New home prices are up to about $141,000 on average, a far cry from 2012 when a new house cost only about $81,275 an existing dwelling went for $41,000.
But some say the accreditation loss is still a drag on the county.
Clayton is struggling in efforts to woo white-collar employers with high-paying salaries in part because some businesses fear employees won’t want to move to the area because of perceptions about the school system, Clayton leaders, businessowners and experts in education say. The hangover from the accreditation loss also has made it tougher for companies already in the county to recruit talent and has contributed to slower residential growth, even though Clayton has some of the most affordable home prices in metro Atlanta, they said.
“On a micro level, it slowed down the flow of people moving into the county, and that includes businesses,” said Kennesaw State University economist Roger Tutterow. “On a more macro level, it sent negative signals about the management of the county.”
Heading for the hills
Some believe the accreditiation loss also caused an imbalance in the school system’s socio-economic make up that persists today. Many well-heeled and middle class residents fled after the SACS decision, leaving behind the metro area’s highest percentage of students who are low income or need free-and-reduced lunch, according to the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.
“We tried to convince a lot of parents not to leave,” Clayton NAACP leader Cheryl Synamon Baldwin said. “We lost parents who were involved in the schools and took an active role in the community.”
Reversing the perceptions has been difficult because the county’s leaders, including those in the business community, have not worked hard enough to sell Clayton County as a corporate and residential destination, said Ben Casey, president and CEO of LTI, a Jonesboro food services and supply company.
Clayton’s parks, home affordability and easy access to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport should be what the county is known for, not the school system’s temporary accreditation loss, he said.
“I want to stop being asked ‘Why come to Clayton County,’” said Casey, who is expanding the company’s headquarters to show its commitment to Clayton County. “Instead I want to be asked, ‘How can I get in?’”
A new direction
If Clayton is successful in charting a new course, the face of that effort may belong to schools superintendent Morcease Beasley.
Beasley has been a stronger communicator with parents, teachers and the business community than past Clayton Schools leaders, district observers say. They say the increased visibility includes frequently attending parent-teacher association meetings, going to lunches for business organizations and posting videos on the school system’s website about what’s going on in the district.
“He’s an open book,” said Cyd Cox, president of the Clayton County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations. “You can ask him any question and he will answer them.”
He also is tackling the district’s finances, which some say have overextended the budget for years and have needed stronger fiscal responsibility. His plan for the 2018 school year budget freezes salaries, cuts the budget of the central office and will increase class sizes.
“We got to go through a little pain to get the positive gains that we need,” said Clayton business consultant Timothy Vondell Jefferson, a frequent critic of Clayton’s government who is willing to give Beasley latitude to undo past wrongs. “He’s doing the best he can with what was handed to him.”
But while Beasley may be the district’s new face, he will be building on years of progress rebuilding the system, county leaders said.
That work has led to two of the district’s schools — Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts and Elite Scholars Academy — making the list of top Georgia Schools in a recent ranking by U.S. News and World Report.
The district also received good news last year when it learned it had only one school — Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary — remaining on Gov. Nathan’s Deal’s list of schools in need of a turnaround. Clayton had three schools on the list the year before.
In addition, graduation rates at all of Clayton’s high schools reached 60 percent or better in the 2016-2017 school year for the first time since 2011.
“Do we find pockets of misinformation where people think that we’re still dealing with accreditation issues, that comes up every now and then,” Beasley said. “But I talk to them and I educate them.”
Beasley can’t reshape the county’s image alone, said Shannon James, chairman of Aerotropolis Atlanta, an organization tasked with making the area around Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport a business and residential destination. Clayton’s business and municipal leaders need to participate in more high-level trips with state and local delegations that are designed to attract business investment and grow the area’s economy.
That gives Clayton a chance to change the narrative and push back against those who would use the past against it.
When asked about the accreditation loss, James said, “I tell them, ‘Leadership caused the county to crumble,’” he said. “Well, now we have new leadership and it’s putting us on the right path.”
Time is a healer
While Clayton’s ignominy has taken time to subside, it has not been a total barrier to the district’s future, said Georgia State University Associate Dean for Faculty and Fellowship Gwen Benson. The school has worked for years with the district on teacher training, professional development and grant writing to recruit educators.
Young educators who want to teach in an urban environment have not been scared off by Clayton’s past.
“A lot of them, if you think about it, weren’t even in college yet,” Benson said. “So they are not making decisions on a district that lost its accreditation 10 years ago.”
Jeremy Stratton, CEO of the Clayton Chamber of Commerce, said he believes the day will come when Clayton’s accreditation loss will be but a small footnote.
Clayton can be as successful, he said, by staying focused and not worrying about what the outside world thinks.
“If a company comes to town, they are going to ask, ‘Well, how are your schools?’ and we’re going to have answer that,” he said. “So it’s important that our test scores go up and that we have a strong school system.”
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