The Grio — Samuel Johnson once said that “nothing focuses the mind like a hanging”. That adage can be amended to say that nothing focuses a school board like the threat of the loss of accreditation. And if that adage holds true, consider the Atlanta Public Schools board members to be duly focused.
On Wednesday, AdvancED, the world’s largest accreditation agency that accredits Atlanta high schools, placed Atlanta Public School board members on a nine-month probation for violating their governance and leadership policies. With 49,000 students, this is the largest school district ever placed on probation. And if the Atlanta school board fails to meet the conditions of their probation, the effects could be catastrophic for both Atlanta high school students, and the city of Atlanta in general.
According to the AdvancED report, the nine-member school board has been the picture of dysfunction. For the past year, an acrimonious 5-4 voting split between the board members has led to “in-fighting, bickering, failure to adhere to the system Charter, failure to follow in-house legal advice, failure to follow appropriate procurement procedures, and using valuable board member time to promote private agendas.”
During their interviews with parents, Atlanta Public School staff, and other stakeholders, AdvancED found that board meetings had been “dominated by adult issues, with little or no concern about students.” And when you go through the transgressions listed in the report, their argument is compelling.
The acrimony on the board began when five members on the board decided to change board policy for the purpose of changing the sitting board chair and vice chair. The original policy stated that in order to remove a board chair or vice chair, a two-thirds majority was required. On a 5-4 vote, the board ignored legal advice that the policy change was illegal, and replaced the chair and vice chair with a simple majority vote. This resulted in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the policy change.
The board also skirted around their own policies and procedures to work with unauthorized vendors, with the Chair authorizing work without the Board’s knowledge.
These weren’t the only scandals to hit the Atlanta Public Schools. Last February, nearly two-thirds of Atlanta schools were under scrutiny for possible cheating on the Criterion Reference Competency Test (CRCT) state standardized test. Suspicious erasures on the test led to a commission being formed, where last August, 58 of 84 Atlanta schools were shown to have various evidence of cheating. In some cases, twelve schools were actively found to have manipulated the tests of their students.
As for the personal conduct of board members, that’s also proven to be problematic. After having been warned once about using the school district credit card for person purchases, a board member continued to rack up over $800 dollars worth of charges, resulting in a censure and $2500 fine.
The constant bickering among the board members, the deterioration of trust between the board and the public, all contributed to an atmosphere within the Atlanta school system that was described in the AdvancED report as contributing to “negative morale” among school system employees. This is a huge fall from grace for a board that only a year earlier was named as an Urban Board of Excellence.
“The Atlanta Public School System’s Board of Education was recognized as one of the best school boards in the nation just over a year ago. The board has an opportunity to recapture what made it one of the most effective and dynamic school boards in Georgia, but only if the board addresses its current issues with dedication and commitment to it’s overall success,” stated Dr. Mark Elgart, President and CEO, AdvancED. “If not addressed, these challenges could seriously detract from the district’s educational program and limit the district’s ability to fulfill its mission.”