Positive Models for Peach County Schools

An article in Monday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows it’s possible for a school system facing loss of accreditation to come back from the brink.   The story, “How one Georgia school system was rescued. Can Clayton County be next?”, compares tiny Lanier County in Southwest Georgia with the much larger Clayton County system in Metro Atlanta.

As you’ve probably read, the Clayton schools are on the verge of losing accreditation, with a vote on that scheduled for March 15.  The AJC article highlights steps already underway to rescue Clayton’s schools, and Lanier’s rocky, but ultimately successful road back to full accreditation.

Mark Elgart, the association’s president and chief executive officer, recommends Clayton learn a few things from Lanier County. Two weeks ago, the association voted to take Lanier off probation and fully restore its accreditation

“Lanier was a dysfunctional board — a lot of micromanaging, conflict of interest, a couple of board members interfering with business activities, the board awarding contracts to support local businesses and bad leadership,” Elgart said. “They are a small town compared to Clayton, but their problems were similar.”

Here’s the AJC’s summary of how Lanier County people recall their problems:

In the summer of 2005, former Lanier superintendent Eloise Sorrell and school board member Randy Sirmans filed a complaint with SACS. They accused board Chairman Phillip Connell of changing bus routes to accommodate parents’ schedules, directing a teacher to lay wood chips on a playground and trying to get criminal charges dropped against an employee’s son who attacked a teacher. They say board meetings were full of fights and demeaning comments about staff. Board members negotiated contracts at the grocery store and aligned votes at church.

“Our main concern was the difference in the roles and responsibility of board members and the superintendent,” said Sirmans, who is still on the board. “Board members were overstepping their bounds.”

Sorrell, who has since been fired, declined to comment.

Lanier residents attempted to recall Connell but did not get enough qualified signatures. Connell won’t talk about the recall or the allegations against him.

Maybe you’re feeling better already — it’s not just a Peach County thing!

So how did Lanier claw its way out of the hole the community had dug itself into?  Read on:

The threat of losing accreditation got the attention of most of the Lanier board and they immediately assembled a citizens’ review committee comprised of business and civic leaders, tasked with coming up with a plan to meet SACS’ five requirements.

The board also hired a retired superintendent, Tom Hagler, to serve as an interim leader while the district worked to hold on to its accreditation. Hagler retired after more than 33 years as a superintendent in Bibb and Lowndes counties.

“We really had to hustle and show some progress,” said Hagler, who served as Lanier’s interim superintendent from June 2006 to June 2007. “You got to have a strong person who will not take crap from anybody — the board, administrators, teachers.”

Hagler scheduled board-training sessions with the Georgia School Boards Association. He also set up four public forums with the board and citizens committee to outline their plan and allow residents to vent.

“We tried to bring all sides together,” said Larry Lee, vice chairman of the citizens’ committee and chief executive officer of FMB Bancshares in “The committee allowed citizens to put emotions aside and talk to us.”

So there you have it.  Small, fractured rural county saves its schools.  Let’s make this our headline.

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