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?This will all be history come September?
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Describing what both agree is a “major paradigm shift” in the way public education is managed in Chatham County, School Board President Hugh Golson and Acting Superintendent George Bowen presented a unified front at a press conference last week on accreditation issues.

“I want to stress that we’re still an accredited district,” Golson began. “At no time has our accreditation been lifted. We’re moving to take steps to lift the probationary status to make that an even firmer bed of reality.”

At issue is last year’s dressing-down of the local school board by the private accrediting body Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

A series of situations where Chatham County School Board members interfered in the day-to-day operations of individual schools was judged to be so severe that SACS placed the entire local public school system on probationary status for a year -- where it remains to this day.

In theory the next step would be to lose accreditation entirely. Among other things, this would negate any graduate’s eligibility for the Georgia HOPE Scholarship.

“I’ve talked to so many 11th graders moving into their senior years who are concerned about whether they’ll get a diploma that will qualify them for a HOPE Scholarship -- or more importantly, will they be able to get into the university of their choice,” Bowen said at the press conference.

“I’ve been personally meeting with them to let them know that they won’t have anything to worry about,” he said. “All this will be history come September.”

Still, Bowen acknowledged that months of acrimony -- including a contentious recall campaign against Golson and several other board members -- have left a bitter taste in the mouth of local parents and educators.

“SACS has made us aware of some critical issues. And getting all this behind us is a critical portion of addressing those issues,” Bowen said. “The community will feel a lot more supportive of what we’re trying to do if we can tell them we’ve overcome these accreditation issues.”

As proof of their devotion to doing away with business as usual in Chatham County, Golson and Bowen presented a detailed timeline for reforming school board policy that has been sent to Dr. Mark A. Elgart, SACS executive director.

“We’ve been told we need to change the way we govern, and we’re taking steps to change that,” Golson said. “A big part of getting off probation is having clear-cut policies. We have to learn a new way of governing.”

Golson said that board and staff members have traveled to Atlanta to get face-to-face input from SACS about installing new governance standards.

“We met with Dr. Elgart in Atlanta and got his input into the process,” he said. “It’s important to remember that we’re a member of SACS. We pay them some nice dues.”

Another reform in the near future, Golson said, will be a major overhaul of “our onerous, ancient policy manual that’s about 75 percent larger than it needs to be.”

On a personal note, the embattled school board president said that the accreditation controversy has brought a new awareness of proper standards to the school board.

“As individuals, we’ve all learned from this. There’s a major paradigm shift going on now. A lot is a leap of faith, and a lot is understanding the new standards,” Golson said.

“Previously we had nine politicians, each vying for their home districts. But a school board member isn’t the same as a city alderman, where Voter A gets mad about a missing sewer cap and gets them on the phone.”

Rather, Golson’s ideal is of “nine policy-setters” in “transparent districts.” He said a prime focus right now is on streamlining the current chaotic way of handling parent complaints.

“We’re working on the complaint process, because we’ve discovered that is the process where a school board member is most likely to become embroiled in areas they shouldn’t be involved in,” Golson said.

“We want less of those last-resort phone calls to board members and those heated conversations about wanting to have some staff member fired,” he said.

“Board members have to educate the public and make it perfectly clear to them that we have no personnel strings to hold over anyone in the district. But like it or not, they’re going to have people contacting them, and we want them to be able to say, ‘hey, we’ve got a new process here.’”

Bowen pledged to hold up his end of the new paradigm by empowering staff at the individual school level to address concerns on their own.

“We’re going to work toward a kinder, gentler 208 Bull Street, rather than just pushing things onto the schools from above,” he said. “We’re going to ask principals, ‘How can we help you today to make your school a better place?’”

Bowen said he can’t do his job properly without a large share of the problem-solving burden.

“If I’m going to be the chief executive officer of this school system responsible for looking at all its problems, if I don’t know about them, how can I fix them?” he asked. “By complaints consistently bypassing my office, I’m unable to solve any problems districtwide.”

While the search continues for a permanent replacement for former Superintendent John O’Sullivan, the current acting superintendent added that relations between board and staff are trending noticeably upward in the wake of the SACS sanction and O’Sullivan’s departure.

“The working relationship between the board and myself is a lot better than it has been in the past. There have been a lot of professional conversations about issues. So far no board member has overstepped their bounds,” Bowen said.

“We haven’t agreed on everything 100 percent, but we’re moving in a positive direction. We’ve had some heated discussions, but in each and every case we’ve either agreed to agree or agreed to disagree.”

Golson said that more extreme reform measures -- such as changing school board seats to appointed rather than elected positions -- won’t be necessary.

“It’s a vacuous thought,” Golson described the idea of an appointed board. “That would require an amendment to the state constitution. That’s a very hard process, and right now I see no political will in the legislature to do such a thing.”

If such an amendment were to pass, Golson said, “There are many vested interest groups that have fought hard for civil rights over the years that would work very hard to make sure they don’t lose guaranteed protections under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. There would be a legal challenge.”

However, Golson did allow that “we need to clean up problems in the electoral process,” citing several examples of comparatively minor reforms that could be made locally.

“Do we really need nine districts that mirror the county commission districts? And do we really need an at-large school board president?” he asked, referring to his own office. “That’s a pretty rare thing in Georgia. In most counties the school board elevates one of their own to the leadership position.”

While noting that practically speaking there’s little an individual parent can do now to help the accreditation issue, Golson closed with some blunt counsel for concerned parents:

“Exercise your option to vote,” he said. “Elevate school board elections into something more important, so that we can build this into the world-class school board that it needs to be in this world-class city.”


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