Wed., January 13, 2010 6:34pm (EST)

Warren Board Problems Not Unique
By Mary Ellen Cheatham
Updated: 5 years ago

AUGUSTA, Ga.  —  
Governor Sonny Perdue says he wants to try again to implement a statewide governance law for school boards.  (GPB file photo)
Governor Sonny Perdue says he wants to try again to implement a statewide governance law for school boards. (GPB file photo)
When the Warren County school system loses its accreditation this summer, it won't be for student performance, teacher accountability, or anything else that goes on in the classroom.

It will be because the school board can't play by the rules. That is, at least, what the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said in a recent report recommending the system be dropped.

Controversy and public rancor at school board meetings there threatens the quality of education, SACS says, since the board's handling of everything from budgets to the hiring of teachers ultimately affects student outcomes.

The SACS recommendation is not final, but it's all but decided. And when the system is officially dropped in July, Warren County will be the second school in the U.S. to get the notorious designation in 40 years, with the first also happening in Georgia -- Clayton County -- in 2008.

But SACS says Georgia is not alone in dealing with governance issues. Problems are occurring in school boards across the country, with systems in multiple states risking the loss of accreditation. In the southeast alone, two other systems -- Burke County, North Carolina, and Fairfield County, South Carolina -- are currently on probation because of school board problems.

The struggles likely come, in part, due to federal and state regulations passed in the last decade that toughened standards on student performance, most notably the No Child Left Behind Act enacted in 2002. School systems have faced increasing pressure ever since to improve student test scores or face a host of penalties. Media coverage and increasing public awareness of the issue have also raised the bar.

Add in the current problems with huge budget shortfalls, and the frustration and fighting among school board members has -- in some cases -- become especially nasty, spilling over in public meetings and hampering progress, critics say.

"I think what you have are communities who are clearly cognizant of the high stakes in which their school systems must operate and those high stakes are identified and monitored in a very transparent and public manner," says Mark Elgart, the president of SACS.

Elgart also notes that while NCLB beefed up standards for students, teachers, principals and superintendents, it did not address the accountability of school boards. States are considering new regulations to rein in the renegade boards.

This week, Governor Sonny Perdue said he wants the legislature to pass a law setting statewide standards for governance that would standardize ethics policies, set minimum qualifications for school board members and even provide for the state to take over control of a school board as a last resort. Perdue has previously tried -- and failed -- to pass the law.

But the Warren County situation this week gave him new impetus.

"I'm the one who gets that phone call at the eleventh hour looking for a solution. When that happens, I do not have the ability to act under the current law," said Perdue at a breakfast Monday in Atlanta. "I've been incredibly frustrated to see dysfunctional school boards undermine earnest teachers and jeopardize their students' potential."

If Perdue succeeds, Georgia will be the first state to have such a law.

The Georgia School Boards Association has supported Perdue's previous governance measure, but is waiting to see any proposed legislation before taking a position this year. Tony Arasi, the association's director of professional development, says a law that's responsible and consistent would not necessarily threaten the democratic process at the local level.

Arasi acknowledges the new pressures created by accountability laws. He says school boards are becoming more "data driven." That means school board members, many who don't bring prior professional educational experience and expertise to the table, are having to deal with complex scoring systems and regulations that can sometimes be befuddling to educators themselves.

"The truth is boards...superintendents and principals right now are expected to do it more and do it better, with a lot less resources," said Arasi.

The school boards association is trying to address the new challenges with training and professional development. In many cases, Arasi says, boards are staying within the bounds of decorum.

But assistance from the association and from SACS itself during a probationary period didn't solve the problems in Warren County, where some board members continue to violate their own governance procedures and hiring practices, according to the report. Some members have also refused to sign ethics policies.

Carole Carey, the Warren County schools superintendent, and Clara Roberts, the school board chairman, declined to comment on the SACS recommendation this week. Other school board members were unavailable for comment.

But with the recommendation will come a big black eye. It hurts the reputation of not only the schools, but Warren County itself -- likely making it harder to attract new industry and business -- since education is a major priority to industry leaders.

It also will threaten the ability of students there to get HOPE scholarships or even get accepted to some colleges...since their leadership has failed this one big test.