Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, the international registry for accreditation, said in a letter that he had a number of concerns regarding House Bill 978, which cleared the Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday by a vote of 149-0.
Chief among those concerns was that under the legislation the chairman would be elected in a partisan election by voters countywide to a four-year term in office rather than chosen by fellow board members for a one-year stint.
That letter then sparked a response from several members of the Blue Ribbon Committee appointed by legislators who have now changed their recommendation, saying the chairman should continue to be elected by the board.
Elgart, whose organization includes the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools/Center for School Improvement (SACS-CASI), voiced his concerns about the future of Cherokee County’s accreditation in a letter to School Board Chairman Mike Chapman.
The letter came in response to an inquiry from Chapman regarding the impact of the bill as school officials wrestle with the terms of the legislation.
“We were being warned by our attorneys that (the bill) could be a real issue,” Chapman said, adding members of the county’s legislative delegation are “blindly rushing into the situation” based on personal motivations.
Chapman said he called Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), Rep. Sean Jerguson (R-Holly Springs) and Rep. Calvin Hill (R-Hickory Flat) two weeks ago to question the legislation.
Chapman said Rogers and Hill asked him for more information to support his concerns, so he contacted Elgart. Chapman said Jerguson told him the time for discussion on the matter was over.
“It’s part of the process,” Chapman said of the letter. “I just want to make sure everyone’s aware.”
In the letter, Elgart said the election of the board chair by voters is “highly irregular.”
District spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said from what she and other district officials have been told by Georgia School Boards Association, only five of 180 school districts in the state have a model like the one being proposed and none of those are large, metropolitan districts.
Elgart said that a school board choosing its own chairman is normal practice because the position is often based on the individual’s experience as a board member, putting the board in the best position to select their own leadership. Also, the board chair position is typically a one-year appointment, Elgart said.
“If the community at large were to elect the board chair it would struggle making an informed decision,” he said, adding that the decision would be for four years rather than one as it stands.
Elgart said if the decision by the voters on a board chairman is “incorrect,” the school system and board “would have no recourse” to make a change.
“In such a case, the system could be irreparably harmed during this four year period,” he said. “The school system’s ability to function could be significantly impacted including its capacity to meet accreditation requirements.”
AdvancED is the accreditation body that put Atlanta Public Schools on probation following last year’s cheating scandal. The organization also stripped Clayton County of its accreditation in 2008, making it the third school in that nation to lose accreditation since 1969.
In school systems that lose accreditation, students could have a tougher time getting into some colleges and universities. Loss of accreditation may also make it difficult for students obtain scholarships.
Elgart said he was uncertain as to the motivation behind the proposed legislation.
“However, the state of Georgia should not enact legislation that bypasses or usurps the local control of boards of education,” Elgart said in his letter to the local school board chair.
Elgart went on to praise the success over the last 10 years of the Cherokee County Board of Education.
“Cherokee County Schools have enjoyed over a decade of success because of the strong and stable leadership of its governance leadership team which includes the board of education and superintendent,” he said. “Any legislation that would disrupt this successful track record would be unfortunate.”
Chapman said the letter painted an unfortunate situation.
“It indicates the unfortunate direction that our delegation is trying to go,” Chapman said. “I’m very, very concerned about the future of our school system.”
Chapman said he had not heard anything back from the legislators following Elgart’s response.
An open letter to members of the Cherokee delegation who appointed the Blue Ribbon Committee and signed by four members of the 13-member committee states they retract their previous position on how the board chairman should be elected.
The letter signed by Lisa-Marie Haygood, Janis Micali, Gary Parkes and Michael Sinco says they have “grave concerns” regarding the recommendation given during the Jan. 30 school board meeting and the response from Elgart.
“Given the concerns of (Elgart) … the legislation (HB 978) should be changed to reflect the problems that he has outlined,” the letter states.
The letter went on to state they change their recommendation to eliminate the portion which says the position of school board chairman be elected countywide, instead allowing the chairman to be voted within the board itself.
“This would address the concerns of SACS and prevent major issues with the accrediting organization that have plagued Clayton and DeKalb counties in recent years and Cherokee County in the 1990s,” the letter from the Blue Ribbon committee members states.