After attending a charity basketball tournament last year, Clayton County school board member Jessie Goree fired off an email to the school superintendent complaining about the “deplorable state” of the bleachers at two high schools.
She attached three photos to back up her claim and had further proof, if needed: a piece of one of the broken bleachers in her car, she wrote then-Superintendent Edmond Heatley.
To many in Clayton, Goree is just the kind of school board member the southside school district needs. Involved. Accessible. Outspoken.
To others, she’s meddlesome, micromanaging and tilting at being more liability than asset.
Next month, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) will visit Clayton schools as part of its five-year accreditation review. Such reviews examine whether boards and administrators are functioning according to policy.
Metro Atlantans recently saw what can happen when a district runs afoul of SACS. DeKalb County schools were placed on probation after a December SACS visit. Subsequently, Gov. Nathan Deal suspended and replaced six of DeKalb’s nine board members.
Clayton’s accreditation issues have been overshadowed by DeKalb’s. But they speak to the tightrope that school board members walk as elected officials and policymakers, and to the accreditation fears that come with missteps.
Last fall, SACS sent a “letter of concern” to Heatley, warning that the Clayton school board was returning to its old ways of micromanaging and infighting. The community was in shock, all too aware that, in 2008, Clayton earned the unwelcome distinction of being the first major school district in the nation to lose accreditation in 40 years.
With the letter came the inevitable finger-pointing. Most turned in the direction of Goree, who, by this time, had been censured once, sanctioned once and had a lawsuit pending against her fellow board members.
“I’ve had a few people come and tell me, “Tone it down,” said Goree, a 30-year teaching veteran now retired. “But the majority of people tell me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Goree, 58, is the most hands-on member of the nine-member Clayton board. Her calendar is filled with school events; her district to-do list is long; and her reputation for regularly emailing the superintendent is well-known.
But that hard-charging manner — which she says is critical to restoring the district’s reputation — also led to bitter, public fights with other board members and an acrimonious relationship with Heatley.
Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, the parent organization of SACS, said teachers who become school board members, as Goree did, can have problems adapting to a governance role in a large district.
“You’ve got to be careful not to be a board member looking at the system from the bottom up,” he said. “I think at times, she (Goree) gets too deep into it to look at the big picture.”
But any problems wouldn’t be solely Goree’s fault, Elgart said.
“One person will never take down a good board,” he said.
And it’s probably true that one person can’t save a school district either. But Goree is trying.
On Valentine’s Day, she was line-dancing with North Clayton Middle School students at their holiday dance. The Louisville, Ky., native is a fixture at school basketball and football games, often has the inside track on the district’s front office, and is known to pop into community events to speak her mind.
“She’s the real thing. She’s passionate,” said Larry O’Keeffe, a longtime Clayton County resident.
Goree’s first run-in with the board came after she attended a principals’ meeting at North Clayton High in May 2010. She dropped in to help herself to a plate of food and wound up getting involved when a principal asked her about a school matter. Goree readily admitted to the improper conduct that SACS could deem micromanaging. She ultimately was censured, a punishment she voted for herself.
On Oct. 5, 2011, Goree clashed with Heatley at a booster club meeting at North Clayton High. Heatley filed a formal complaint, and the board voted to bar Goree from one school board meeting and from serving as chair or vice chair until November 2013.
Goree didn’t bow to punishment that time. She filed a civil lawsuit against Heatley and the board, saying she was sanctioned without having a chance to tell her side of the story. Her lawsuit is pending.
Goree’s prolific email dispatches proved so overwhelming to Heatley that he complained they made it nearly impossible for him to do his job. Consequently, the board changed its policy about how members should contact the superintendent.
Goree said Heatley wouldn’t return her phone calls, so she had no recourse but to email him.
Heatley — whose last day as Clayton superintendent was Sept. 30, 2012 — could not be reached for comment.
Records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed Goree sent Heatley hundreds of emails on everything from board meeting times to the selection process for salutatorians and valedictorians to the shoddy bleachers.
“I’m not going to apologize for however many emails I sent to Dr. Heatley,” Goree said.
A wake-up call
The school board took the letter from SACS as a wake-up call, said Luvenia Jackson, interim superintendent.
“You’re going to always have strong members of the board, where you have strong opinions, where people can speak their mind,” Jackson said. “In the end, everybody needs to come together as best they can.”
Pam Adamson, who took office in December 2008 and became the board’s chair in January 2011, said it’s a difficult task getting the public to understand that board members are policymakers, not politicians with the clout to intervene in cheerleading tryouts, hiring decisions and student suspensions.
Adamson recalls a public meeting where a parent told her: “We just wish you were a little more aggressive.”
She pulled out and started reading aloud excerpts from Senate Bill 84, which, because of accreditation flaps in Clayton and elsewhere, is now law on the do’s and don’ts for school board members.
The complaining woman came up to her later and said: “I never knew,” Adamson recalled.
20 |Special Review Team ReportAbou t Advan cEDBackgroundDedicated to advancing excellence in education worldwide, AdvancED provides accreditation,research and professional services to 30,000 institutions in 74 countries. AdvancED providesaccreditation under the seals of the North Central Association Commission on Accreditationand School Improvement (NCA CASI), Northwest Accreditation Commission (NWAC), andthe Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and SchoolImprovement (SACS CASI).The Accredit ation Process To earn and maintain accreditation, an institution mu st:Meet the AdvancED Standards and accreditation policies.Institutions demonstrate adherence to the AdvancED Standards and accreditationpolicies which describe the quality practices and conditions that research and bestpractice indicate are necessary for educational institutions to achieve quality studentperformance and organizational effectiveness.Engage in continuous improvement.Institutions implement a plan of continuous improvement focused on improving student performance and organizational effectiveness.Demonstrate quality assurance through internal and external review.Institutions engage in a planned process of ongoing internal review and self-assessment.In addition, institutions host an External Review team once every five years. The teamevaluates the institution’s adherence to the AdvancED Standards of Quality andaccreditation policies, assesses the efficacy of the institution’s improvement process andmethods for quality assurance, and provides Powerful Practices, Opportunities forImprovement, and Required Actions to help the institution improve. The institutionacts on the team’s Required Actions and submits an Accreditation Progress Report atprescribed intervals following the External Review. Monitoring visits may be conductedduring this time to ensure that the institution is making progress toward the Required Actions.A Process of Cont inuous I m provem ent The AdvancED Accreditation Process engages the institution in a continuous process of self-evaluation and improvement. The overall aim is to help institutions be the best they can be onbehalf of the students they serve.
Requirements for election, developed by a local school board in Georgia after the Clayton accreditation crisis
*Must reside in the school district and election district in which the candidate is running.
*Cannot serve on the governing body of a private elementary or seconary educational institution.
*Cannot be employed by the local board of education, the Georgia Department of Education or the State Board of Education.
*Cannot have a family member who is a superintendent, school principal or assistant principal.
*Must sign an affidavidit, promising to obey board’s code of ethics and policies on conflicts of interest and to show compliance each year with board member training requirements.
*Cannot be on the National Sex Offender Registry or the state sexual offender registry.
*Must meet other county election requirements.
Highlights of Senate Bill 84, signed into law May 25, 2010*
Sparked by accreditation controversies in Clayton, elsewhere
“School board members hold special roles as trustees of public funds, including local, state and federal funds, while they focus on the singular objective of ensuring each student in the local school system receives a quality basic education.”
Duties of board members: (1) vision setting; (2) policymaking; (3) approving multimillion-dollar budgets, hiring a qualified superintendent.
“Given the specialized nature and unique role of membership on a local board of education, this elected office should be characterized and treated differently from other elected offices where the primary duty is independently to represent constituent views.”
“It shall not be the role of the local board of education or individual members of such board to micromanage the superintendent in executing his or her duties, but it shall be the duty of the local board to hold the local school superintendent accountable in the performance of his or her duties.”
“Local board of education members should work together with the entire local board of education and shall not have authority as independent elected officials but shall only be authorized to take official action as members of the board as a whole.”
“No local board of education member shall use or attempt to use his or her official position to secure unwarranted privileges, advantages, or employment for himself or herself, his or her immediate family member, or others.”
Digging deep. In April, accrediting agency SACS will review how the Clayton school board operates and will determine whether evidence of in-fighting and micromanaging has rendered the board ineffective. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed hundreds of emails between board members and the district’s former superintendent and conducted interviews within the district and throughout the county to shed light on whether the relationships are working.