Georgia Attorney General says SACS should be more transparent

The private agency that accredits public schools in Georgia can make or break a community, driving down property values and threatening the future of college-bound students.

Under Georgia law, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools can also set the stage for the removal of elected school board members, yet it is not subject to the state law that forces public agencies to share records with the public, and critics contend its use of anonymous sources makes disproving allegations impossible.

SACS’ records, or the lack of them, became the focus of recent administrative court hearings for DeKalb school board members who contested their suspensions under a relatively new law that authorizes the governor to suspend and ultimately remove members in districts at risk of losing accreditation.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens who championed a recent overhaul of the state’s open records laws that imposed greater transparency on local government told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he wants SACS to voluntarily comply with it.

“They have a huge impact not just on education but on the quality of the whole community,” Olens said, adding that the agency should be “required” to release some records in connection with accreditation decisions. If SACS refuses to comply, he said, the Georgia General Assembly could force them to, though he said he doesn’t want to see the law amended to include private non-profits like SACS.

A spokeswoman for SACS parent company AdvancED confirmed that the agency is trying to arrange a meeting with Olens. The spokeswoman, Jennifer Oliver, said AdvancED president and CEO Mark Elgart is willing to discuss “how the state law and our processes can be improved.”

Gov. Nathan Deal suspended two-thirds of the elected DeKalb board in February and appointed hand-picked replacements in March. All but one of the six suspended members petitioned for reinstatement. After administrative hearings, Deal’s office announced last week that he was not going to change his mind and that the five petitioners were therefore removed, along with the previously removed board member who declined to petition.

During the hearings, now removed-board members such as Eugene Walker argued that SACS used anonymous sources to allege wrongdoing and brought no specific evidence against individual board members. AdvancED’s chief legal officer admitted that the agency did not keep evidence, such as interview notes, and could not say who brought particular allegations or even which board member was suspected of particular improprieties.

Walker was delighted to hear about Olens’ demand for transparency. “I think it’s long overdue,” he said. “I think any credible, legitimate organization ought to be held accountable for the reports they make.”

In Metro Atlanta, SACS has recently also raised accreditation issues with Atlanta and Clayton County schools and has been invited to look into issues with the Cherokee school board.

Walker said SACS should not have been allowed to use anonymous sources to bring the allegations of mismanagement that informed its probation decision. “The harm they brought to this system was due basically to rumors and innuendo,” he said. “You’ve got people who’ve got gripes about everything, and a lot of those gripes are unfounded.”

A parent who has followed the DeKalb school board removal process said she would have appreciated more transparency. But that parent, Michelle Penkava, was also thrilled that SACS called the old school board to the carpet and that Deal took the action he did. Penkava said parents like her had been begging SACS to intervene in DeKalb for years.

“I wouldn’t mind if it was more transparent, but I don’t want to do harm to the process because, as frustrated as people are with SACS right now because they moved so slowly, I think they got it right,” Penkava said. “I’m just incredibly happy with the results.”