A school board self-destructs

Forrest Gump's Momma was righ t – not about that box of chocolates, because sometimes you do know what you are getting – but about how our actions reflect our character.

“Stupid is as stupid does,” she said, which might help explain what happened in Clayton County, Ga., this week.

As of Tuesday, the more than 50,000 students in Clayton County are attending schools that were officially unaccredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS accreditation means that a school district is held accountable for all aspects of its mission, from its vision and governance to its ability to teach and communicate with parents and the community.

The cost of disaccreditation

No school district since 1969 has lost its accreditation – the repercussions are so dire that school districts are extraordinarily careful when undergoing scheduled accreditation monitoring. Now seniors graduating from Clayton County will have difficulty getting scholarships and acceptance to college. The district will lose its pre-kindergarten funding, a big blow in an area with a high poverty rate. Teachers will be unable to get necessary professional development recertification from the school district, and if they transfer to another system, they can lose their benefits. Property values will drop as people pull their children from the schools and move out of the county.

In the report detailing the reasons for unaccrediting the Clayton County Public Schools, SACS lays the blame squarely on the dysfunctional school board, calling it “fatally flawed.” The school board members were cited as the reason for the failure of the school district to meet any of the nine required standards for accreditation.

According the SACS, the board's lack of vision was its first fatal flaw. Board members ignored any but their own constituents and refused to work for the greater good of the district. They routinely verbally abused district staff and faculty and yelled at each other in board meetings.

Over and over again the board members decisions that showed they did not understand their role. More than once their inability to understand the rules and regulations of land acquisition and contract bidding meant they were unable to proceed in necessary building projects. SACS reprimanded them for overstepping their authority and micromanaging the school district and becoming “regular fixtures at the administrative building.” Unhappy about her son's treatment on the high school football team, one board member urged that the coach be fired.

Dysfunctional board

The board often met in secret and without a published agenda. Members voted to hire relatives and friends and to compensate them with raises. They lost a million dollars when one board member, an employee of a for-profit teachers organization that opposed the Kaplan Core Curriculum, voted to cancel the Kaplan contract despite evidence that students were making gains. At least one board member did not even live in the school district.

Despite repeated calls from parents and students for the board members to conduct themselves professionally, the board was never able to get beyond personal animosities. At one point it was so fractured that members voted to hold a special training session to help them cobble together a working relationship. Two members refused to attend, and the police had to be called when a physical fight broke out between the others.

Their financial mismanagement led to a serious textbook shortage one year. They spent district money on open records requests for investigation of each other. They voted against SACS advice and hired an expensive superintendent with a poor track record.

The day after SACS unaccredited Clayton County Pubic Schools, Gov. Sonny Perdue fired the four board members who had not already resigned. In its summation, SACS makes clear that the district is “a ship without a rudder in dangerous waters.”

Community must step in

“It became apparent during the review that only the community can look inward with a strategic focus on the kinds of schools and school district it would like to adequately prepare young people for success in the 21st century. The community must exert its influence by supporting strong candidates for the Board of Education who have the desire to make a difference for young people, the skills and knowledge to be an effective member of the Board of Education and recognize that their role is that of developing policies that define the work of the schools. An effective and forward thinking local board of education is central to the attainment of these goals. Only the community can ensure that those elected are held accountable for their actions.”