SACS explains investigation process
by Mark Andrews
Nov 14, 2012 | 1731 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This summer, several community members as well as Bartow County Board of Education member Wanda Cagle Gray filed a formal complaint to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, questioning actions by the board, a board member’s other roles in the community and the use of school facilities by other entities. After receiving a response letter from Superintendent John Harper, SACS reported they saw no need for an investigation and suggested the board operated in “a spirit of harmony.”

Despite the response from SACS, community members have continued to question the board regarding the SACS complaint, with some alleging Chairman Davis Nelson’s role as SACS state chairman was the reason the organization did not conduct an investigation. Nelson, a former superintendent for the county, was elected to the Post 2 seat two years ago, beating incumbent Roger Maier. Nelson had 487 votes, or 58.8 percent of the overall vote, to Maier’s 341 ballots.

In an effort to better understand what a SACS investigation could mean for Bartow County, The Daily Tribune News contacted the organization for a Q&A.

The responses are from AdvancED President and CEO Mark Elgart. SACS is an accreditation division of AdvancED.

At what point does SACS feel it is necessary to conduct an investigation after a formal complaint has been made?

A: Complaints are reviewed to determine if there is a possible violation of Accreditation Standards. If this appears a possibility, AdvancED/SACS sends a letter to the superintendent asking for a response to the complaints and possible violations of the standards. Depending on the response from the superintendent and other evidence available, a determination is made whether an investigation is needed.

What does a typical investigation include?

A: When AdvancED conducts a Special Review visit, in general, the team interviews the board of education members, the superintendent, senior staff, as well as representatives from the schools and the community. The team also reviews documents and evidence related to the complaints being investigated.

At what point in the year does a school system typically renew or lose its SACS accreditation and when does the renewal or loss of accreditation become official?

A: Schools and school systems are accredited for a five-year term. Generally the commission meets in January and June.

If a school system is to lose its SACS accreditation, what does this mean for students in terms of their access to local and accredited schools? Also, what does losing the accreditation mean for students approaching graduation and looking at attending a school within the University System of Georgia or the Technical College System of Georgia?

A: First and foremost, loss of accreditation is a long road. Institutions are given time to comply with any required actions to meet the Standards for Accreditation. Most institutions that face difficulties in meeting the requirements of accreditation quickly seek help and address the needed changes proactively. The loss of accreditation does make it more difficult for students to transfer credits seamlessly. Additionally, there are some colleges and universities, as well as scholarships, financial aid and military programs that require students to come from an accredited institution. Students still have choices, but it is imperative that they understand the application and admission requirements.

What would you consider to be the far-reaching repercussions of a system losing accreditation (i.e., have you witnessed communities losing jobs and businesses due to losing accreditation)?

A: In 2008, Clayton County School System lost its accreditation. This was the first school system in 40 years. Clayton County community members have shared that in addition to a loss of students to the school system, local businesses and the economy were affected.

Does SACS have the power to remove school board members?

A: No.

Can you explain the role of a SACS state chairman?

A: In each of our states and regions, we have a council that supports the state office staff. The council provides support for professional development activities sponsored by the state office, the council provides feedback to the state staff regarding activities and initiatives, and the council reviews all accreditation activities within the state before reports and accreditation recommendations are sent to the Accreditation Commission. The council chair presides over the council meetings.

Could you explain what you deem a “spirit of harmony” in regard to board operations? And at what point would you determine a board is not following a “spirit of harmony?”

A: As part of the AdvancED Standards, Standard 2: Governance and Leadership, “The governing body operates responsibly and functions effectively.”

This includes collaboratively making decisions in the best interest of the school system and working together in a collegial group to support student achievement. A board absent of professionalism and in constant strife will struggle to meet the requirements of a responsible and effectively functioning board. Thus, a spirit of harmony reflects a positive culture and commitment to do what is in the best interest of all students.

The letter sent to SACS specifically calls into question the use of county school facilities by Excel Christian Academy, the use of facilities by the Rome Volleyball Club and a board retreat held in Floyd County, which Gray said had the appearance of wrongdoing. She also cited the possible conflict of interest in violation of board policy and SACS standards involving Nelson and plan reviews he had signed as district supervisor for Bartow County Coosa River Soil and Water Conservation District Erosion and Sediment Control Plan Review with regard to the new Emerson Elementary School site.

In last week’s general election, Gray lost her Post 4 seat to Fred Kittle, who will take office Jan. 1.

Repercussions of SACS investigations and findings have hit headlines lately in other parts of the state. For example, Gov. Nathan Deal in September signed an executive order naming five replacements to the Miller County School Board after the system was put on probation by SACS.

The governor dissolved the board and named a committee of educators to recommend replacements.

Clayton County faced another warning from SACS this year. A Sept. 30 article by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution concerning a warning by SACS toward the county’s school board due to infighting reports aftermath of the 2008 accreditation loss, stated, “In the months after the system lost accreditation, more than 3,200 students fled the district. The county’s overall population, which reached almost 280,000 in the late 2000s, is down about 20,000 people, according to Census estimates.”

The school system also lost more than $20 million in state education dollars due to the accreditation loss.