School watchdog’s clout praised, questioned

Luvenia Jackson, the just-named interim superintendent of Clayton County Schools, had a sense of dread when the warning came from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

“We’ve been through this before,” Jackson said of the recent letter, which alerted her to SACS’ concerns about micro-managing and infighting among school board members.

That’s precisely why the missive was so unnerving. When SACS yanked Clayton’s accreditation in 2008, the county saw an exodus of students and teachers and lost millions in state education dollars, all amid a brutal recession.

The consequences of losing accreditation give Alpharetta-based SACS enormous - and some say outsized - influence over a school system’s reputation and the futures of its students. The mere mention of a SACS investigation can send parents and system employees into a tizzy.

While SACS says the latest letter to Clayton was only a warning to head off problems, DeKalb County is also feeling the anxiety. SACS officials are investigating complaints there of school board financial mismanagement and meddling in personnel matters. The agency has already dropped DeKalb’s accreditation to “advisement” status. The investigation could result in another drop, which could lead to DeKalb losing accreditation.

Whether a private nonprofit with no government standing should have so much clout is debated.

“I think it’s a good thing that SACS exists because it gives standards,” said Sid Chapman, president of the Clayton County Education Association. “But then again, where do you balance that with [the responsibility of] the elected officials…?”

Some say the accrediting organization serves a crucial quality-control role that state and elected officials are loathe to assume because of political consequences. Others say SACS wields too much power and can turn a district on its head - and even wound the local economy - by even hinting at trouble.

No law or regulation requires Georgia schools to be accredited. But without it, a system’s graduates are ineligible for scholarships, such as HOPE. Further, counties use accreditation as an economic development selling point.

Other accrediting agencies exist, but SACS dominates in Georgia.

SACS’ focus has broadened since its inception, when it was geared toward assuring proper facilities and staffing. By the early 2000s, it was considering quality issues such as school board governance and leadership.

Mark Elgart, CEO of AdvancED, SACS’ nonprofit parent, attributes that partly to the federal No Child Left Behind law and a greater demand for accountability in public schools.

Elgart said school system governance — the heart of Clayton and DeKalb’s troubles — is an issue in fewer than 1 percent of schools SACS accredits in Georgia and other states.

SACS’ role has grown since 2010, when a law was passed establishing a method for removing school boards in districts placed on probation by SACS. Under the law, probation triggers a hearing before the state Board of Education, which can recommend that the governor oust the local school board.

So far five counties have had such hearings and one, Miller in southwest Georgia, has had its board replaced.

Buddy Johnson, the new chairman of the Miller County Board of Education, said that, “without SACS, without somebody stepping in, we never would have fixed (board problems).”

The higher visibility for SACS has made more people aware that they can turn to the agency to lodge complaints against school districts, said Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association.

“It has literally made them almost a policing agency of elected officials, because it has given somebody power over elected officials other than voters,” Palm said. “…I think they’re being used by a number of people as some kind of regulatory agency that they really were never intended to be.”

Jennifer Oliver, vice president for communication at AdvancED, said the agency protects the identity of people who file complaints. Only complaints that violate AdvancED accreditation standards are acted on, and in such cases, the agency contacts the superintendent first, Oliver said.

John Trotter, head of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators and an outspoken critic of SACS, says the agency has evolved into a politically charged organization enabling superintendents to complain about school board members who disagree with their directives.

He also thinks Clayton has received harsher scrutiny than other counties.

“Their so-called standards are capriciously and arbitrarily applied,” said Trotter, noting that the Atlanta Public Schools did not lose its accreditation despite its widespread cheating scandal. “SACS is not accountable to the people of Georgia in any way, shape or form.”

Elgart disputes that, saying his agency only acts on complaints. In both Clayton and DeKalb counties, he said, school system staff and board members brought the current problems to SACS’ attention.

Schools and school systems agree to abide by the standards when they seek SACS accreditation, Elgart noted.

“They want an outside independent agency to ensure they are moving in the right direction and addressing their problems,” he said.

School systems pay SACS a fee for their counsel and stamp of approval. In Georgia, individual schools pay $725 a year, while school systems that have earned accreditation pay $650 per school annually.

AdvancED, which accredits 30,000 public and private schools or institutions worldwide, took in $20.2 million on program services, according to its 2010 tax return. Elgart said the nonprofit dipped into reserves for several years during the U.S. recession to avoid raising fees.

The agency’s focus, Elgart said, is not money, but helping schools improve.

In the past 10 years, SACS has taken action, starting with letters of concern or inquiry, against fewer than 60 of the 6,000 school boards it works with. Media attention makes it seem more frequent, Elgart said.

SACS doesn’t send warning letters or dispatch investigators to incite fear, Elgart said, but rather to help fix problems.

SACS officials wouldn’t be back in DeKalb this week except for lingering problems, Elgart said.

“The problem right now is there’s no discernable improvement in three years,” he said.

As for the concern his letter stirred in Clayton, which only regained full accreditation last year, Elgart said: “I think they overreacted.” The school board has months to improve, he noted, before a full evaluation in the spring.

— Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this report.

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