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Warren BOE conflicts bring SACS review

WARRENTON, Ga. - Strained relations between members of the Warren County Board of Education and School Superintendent Carole Jean Carey have resulted in a special investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools that could affect the system's accreditation.

At least one school board member says he welcomes the SACS investigation.

"I support it," Randy Morris, a seven-year school official told The McDuffie Mirror during an interview on Tuesday. "I think they're moving along cautiously, but at the proper time."

A four-member review team will visit Warren County on Monday and Tuesday, June 22-23, according to SACS Vice-President for Communications Jennifer Oliver. Ms. Oliver said SACS received complaints that warranted the probe, which will focus on the governance and leadership of the system.

Although it is common for the association to receive complaints, Ms. Oliver said the issues are usually resolved through the superintendent and no review team is necessary. However, a letter was sent to Mrs. Carey informing her of the upcoming review, outlining the process and requesting copies of minutes and videos of the school board meetings. While in Warren County, the review team will interview every board member, district personnel and people who regularly attend the board meetings, to investigate members failure to follow the policies of the district, refusal to sign the district's ethics pledge, disregard of Roberts Rules of Order, failure to follow the district's charter, undermining local school governments and micromanagement of the school system.

"The allegations are correct," Mr. Morris said.

The team will take one to two weeks to complete their report, Ms. Oliver said, conduct any follow up investigations, and then send their report to the accreditation department for the next step.

"Then they will make some recommendations after they have finished their review. If needed, the recommendations will require some immediate action. Generally when we send an investigative team in, there is a reason for the review, so we kind of expect there will be some recommendations for improvement. But until after the review, I can't speculate what those will be," Ms. Oliver said, adding that there will be a deadline for the school system to make the corrective steps.

While tensions between some board members and the superintendent had been strained on-and-off for a few years, the relationships became regularly contentious starting in January when the newly-elected members took office and the new chairwoman was selected. The new members include Charles Culver, who was the superintendent of Warren County Schools before Mrs. Carey, and District 5 representative Cecil Brown. They joined long-time board members Gwendolyn Tucker and Mr. Morris on the panel.

Another veteran board member, Clara Roberts, was elected by a 3-2 vote on the panel in January to serve as the board's new chairwoman. In the past, Mrs. Roberts often found herself alone on issues, disagreeing with the position of the majority of the board. However, the addition of Mr. Brown - who serves as vice-chairman - and Mr. Culver has created a three-person majority on the board that often votes together.

Mrs. Roberts said she would rather not make any comment about the SACS investigation saying that she just learned of it while on a school business trip to Savannah. She said she'd rather not make any public comments until after she has had time to look into the matter further.

"I wish I was at liberty to make comment at this time, but I'm just not at this time," Mrs. Roberts said in a Monday telephone interview.

She suggested that the newspaper try to reach school board attorney Mike Dishman for comments. Mr. Dishman did not return phone calls left Monday at his office in Kennesaw, Ga.

Repeated telephone messages also were left for Mr. Culver and Ms. Tucker, who served as the former school board chairwoman.

The relationship between some of the board members and Mrs. Carey has deteriorated to the point that Mr. Dishman and Mrs. Carey's personal attorney have been called to mediate several meetings. The board's May meeting lasted longer than six hours with two executive sessions involving the attorneys.

Mr. Morris said many of the problems encountered by the school board boil down to politics "100 percent." He, however, would not elaborate on those beliefs, citing the pending SACS investigation.

In a telephone interview, Mrs. Carey said she wants to emphasize the review team is not coming to investigate the school system itself, but the board's governing actions. The system's accreditation status will be affected one of several ways including no change, being advised, warned, put on probation or accreditation dropped.

The Warren County School System became accredited system-wide through SACS in November, 2006, as previously reported by The Mirror. The individual schools - M.E. Freeman Elementary, Warren County Middle and Warren County High School were accredited for two years before that. The system-wide accreditation was a result of the system's strengths of forward thinking leadership, high expectations for all students to achieve, constant communication and approachability among the superintendent, central office, staff and community, and a high degree of confidence in the superintendent.

Warren County Schools also became the first system in Georgia to receive Charter System status this year. Mrs. Carey said their number one goal of being a Charter System is to retain SACS accreditation, so she does not know how the review could affect that.

"This is most unfortunate, and I'm truly grieved that after all our great accomplishments - being the first charter system, having the career academy, becoming a Title I Distinguished District and making AYP and all that - that we are in this situation," Mrs. Carey said. "We need to be acting right for the kids. This is about the kids. I hope something good will come out of it."

Last year, the Clayton County School System became the first district in Georgia and only the third in the nation to lose its accreditation in the past 20 years, following a SACS investigation that revealed a "dysfunctional" school board. The accreditation has since been regained.

Mirror Staff Writer Billy W. Hobbs, The Associated Press and WTHO News Director Donna Branch contributed to this story.

Web posted on Thursday, June 18, 2009

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