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Warren County school woes boil down to matter of race

Barack Obama's 2008 election brought to the polls huge numbers of new young and black voters in a surge that elected the country's first black president.

It was a demographic boon for Democrats and liberals all the way down to the local level. In nearby Warren County, it radically changed the school board. A new majority took control -- and proceeded to destroy the school system.

A year later, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is threatening to revoke the accreditation of Warren County schools unless the three-member ruling cabal makes substantial changes.

If you were an outsider and heard about all this, you might assume SACS is yanking Warren County's credentials because of poor academic performance.

Yet none of this has anything to do with education. In fact, if accreditation were based only on educational success, they'd be holding a ticker-tape parade for the 850 students in Warren County's three public schools.

Just listen to the accolades the system has racked up, according to Superintendent Carole Jean Carey -- a Columbia County resident and former Columbia County school system administrator:

"This system is the first charter system in Georgia, has just begun the work on our Career Academy made possible by a $3 million grant, has a three-year 21st Century grant worth $1 million, was named a Title I Distinguished District, and has made outstanding progress in student achievement," Carey says, adding that 100 percent of the system's certified staff are in the "highly qualified" category.

Topping that off, the system several times has received national recognition for high academic achievement relative to its population.

So if the students are doing so well, what's the problem?

The problem is that three-member majority.

"They are true racists," one of the community's business leaders told me. "They want black principals, black teachers -- they want it to be all black, like Hancock County.

"It's just so crazy," she says. "I feel like I've gone back to the ancient ages."

Ancient? Not really. Some of this started just 40 years ago.

In 1970, the federal government forced local school systems to integrate. Many, like Columbia County, made an orderly transition. Others weren't so smooth, and from them sprang segregation academies: Private schools that "rescued" white students from racially diverse public schools.

For Warren County, that meant the creation of Briarwood Academy.

As in many communities, the damage was twofold: Warren County schools lost many higher-performing students; and, because the parents of those students were influential, they kept a stranglehold on taxes and financially starved the school system. After all: Their kids didn't attend public schools, so they couldn't care less how those schools performed.

That self-perpetuating deterioration continued for some 30 years in Warren County -- until Carey came along. She has guided a turnaround that has been steady and significant.

Then came November 2008, a surge in first-time voters and the election of two new school board members.

In the mere months since then, SACS took notice -- and was appalled. The agency reviewed the system, placed it on probation and spelled out corrective actions. The agency returned for follow-up visits and, when it found a stubborn lack of progress, SACS threatened to revoke the system's accreditation.


Among other things:

Because Warren County is a charter system, many school decisions are to be made by "site-based governance councils" ratified by the board. But some trustees micromanage school operations even down to the level of individual staffing -- especially in matters of race.

The board majority displays a jaw-dropping disregard for ethics. SACS noted in its early review that some members refused to sign the board's ethics policy. Their response? The majority forced through a new, toothless ethics policy that didn't require their signatures.

The board fails to work toward consensus, typically with contentious 3-2 votes -- or, "when the board is able to garner near consensus, one board member frequently abstains from voting," the report says.

There's much more. But in short, the report says, "The actions of the current board have eroded public confidence and negated much of the positive work of the past, and the quality of education for students in Warren County schools has been affected."

It's sad. It took 10 years for Warren County to recover from 30 years of stagnation --and it's taken less than a year to derail that progress.

An often-repeated theme around Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is the call from leaders in the black community for young people to not forget the sacrifices of King and others of his time.

Those Warren County board members have skewed that legacy, focusing only on the shackles of segregation rather than all the progress in breaking free from it.

As a result, they are handcuffing the children of Warren County to a school system that will be set apart as a failure -- not because of the children, but because of adults who should know better. And who should be deeply ashamed.

(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The (Columbia County) News-Times. E-mail, or call (706) 863-6165, ext. 106. Follow at

Web posted on Thursday, January 21, 2010

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