SACS will evaluate DeKalb schools

The school system’s accreditation is safe for now, but the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools told the district they have concerns that must be addressed by early 2012. On Thursday, SACS told DeKalb officials to expect the first visit before Feb. 1.

“This visit is focused on helping them move forward in the challenges they face,” SACS’ president and CEO Mark A. Elgart told the AJC. “They are in a state of uncertainty. They have lingering legal matters. They have an interim superintendent and potential changes in board makeup because of the election.”

Elgart said the review has not reached the level of a full-scale investigation similar to several other systems now under scrutiny, but said SACS has some serious concerns.

DeKalb schools is one of three metro Atlanta districts under review by SACS. On Wednesday the Atlanta Public Schools board was put on notice that it had until Dec. 1 to resolve a board governance issue or face a recommendation to investigate its accreditation. In 2008, SACS revoked Clayton County Schools accreditation, which has since been restored on a probationary basis.

Metro Atlanta is not alone. Warren County in middle Georgia could lose its accreditation in a few weeks. School systems in several states are at risk of losing their accreditation, including two others in the southeast -- Burke County, N.C., and Fairfield County, S.C.

A special review team of trained educators will interview DeKalb board members, staff, parents and other stakeholders. The visit will be focused on the school system’s operations and efficiency, as well its direction, according to a letter Elgart sent to the district on Thursday.

In his letter, Elgart cited concerns of securing a permanent superintendent, implementation of newly enacted policies and procedures, ongoing legal matters and the governing effectiveness of the board.

“There are things that we have to address and we’re not squeaky clean,” board chairman Tom Bowen told the AJC. “To me, the important message is at this moment, the accreditation is fine, but we need to work on some areas to keep it that away.”

In July, SACS ordered the state's third largest district to respond to seven questions concerning allegations of nepotism, conflict of interest, questionable procurement procedures and other ethical problems. The district sent back 2,500 pages of policies, meeting minutes and other evidence to document its compliance with the agency’s national standards for accreditation.

Elgart said he and his staff reviewed those 2,500 pages, along with other documents, and found “significant efforts to address limitations in policies, as well as related administrative procedures.” However, the agency still has concerns.

“They made a lot of changes in policy in a very short time to respond to us. We don’t know the effectiveness of those changes,” he told the AJC. “We need to monitor the effectiveness of the board of education because they play a key role in selecting the superintendent. There is a lot on their plate.”

SACS’ questions started after former superintendent Crawford Lewis, former chief operating officer Patricia Reid and two others were indicted in May on charges they ran a criminal enterprise at the school system. Their trial is scheduled for early next year.

Since then, several DeKalb school administrators have also been disciplined after they were caught profiting by selling their own books to their schools. Board member Jesse “Jay” Cunningham’s family restaurants also sold $22,000 worth of pizza to schools.

Cunningham is one of five board members running for re-election next week. In total, 15 candidates are competing for five seats.

Elgart said SACS will be closely watching those elections, along with races in other districts.

Elgart cautioned that the school system is not in immediate danger and SACS wants to help the 98,000-student district improve. The district was scheduled for a regular check-up for its accreditation in March 2012. This special review team visit will help the district prepare for that check-up to make sure the accreditation stays in place

The visits are mandatory, regardless of the district’s status in hiring a superintendent, Elgart said. The district will be responsible for reimbursing SACS for the visits and any other help, according to SACS’ letter.

Days before sending the 2,500 pages to SACS, the board approved policies concerning employee ethics, whistleblowers, purchasing and staff conflict of interest.

Bowen acknowledged that was intended to salvage accreditation.

“I think this is as good as we could get if you are a realist,” Bowen said. “We really got on best behavior as a system in 90 days. I think this is not a free pass. It says we’ve made corrections, but we got more work to do.”

Elgart commended interim superintendent Ramona Tyson, who stepped in after the board fired Lewis in April. Tyson has said she doesn’t want the permanent job.

Last week, the district hired a search firm to find a new superintendent. It hopes to have someone in place by the start of next school year.

“We saw problems emerging under the prior administration absolutely,” Elgart said. “We recognize that the interim superintendent’s leadership is helping this system move forward.”

In 2008, Clayton County became the first school system in the nation in nearly 40 years to lose district-wide accreditation. At the time, SACS said Clayton’s board was “dysfunctional.”

Since then, SACS has placed the Clayton school system on probation and is working with the district to monitor changes.

Elgart acknowledged that DeKalb is not in the situation Clayton was two years ago and this is not a full-scale investigation. DeKalb’s board has major improvements to make, but they have not gotten the label of dysfunctional, Elgart said.

“We got a year to work with them and they have an opportunity to respond in a productive way. It's my hope they take advantage of it,” he said. “They are not at risk now as long as the conditions dramatically change.”

An accreditation loss could impact scholarship money, federal funding, college acceptances, property values and pre-kindergarten funding throughout DeKalb.