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Attorney says accreditation firm is 'holding the governor hostage '

The attorney representing three school board members embroiled in a legal battle in Warren County to stay in office has accused officials with an accreditation firm of holding the state's top elected official hostage.

E. Brian Watkins, an attorney for Clara B. Roberts, Cecil Brown and Dr. Charles Culver, made the accusation during a recent telephone interview with The McDuffie Mirror.

"SACS officials are holding the governor hostage," Mr. Watkins said. "That's what they are doing with our governor."

Dr. Mark Elgart, chief executive officer of AdvancED, denied such an accusation when reached at a conference in New Mexico on Monday.

"We're not holding the governor hostage," Dr. Elgart said. "The governor has the right to make a decision whatever direction he chooses, just as we're not held hostage by the governor's decision. The governor has a right to make this decision independent of ours."

Dr. Elgart said he had not spoken with the governor concerning the fate of the three school board members.

"His timetable is entirely up to him as to when he wants to make that decision," Dr. Elgart said.

Officials with the Warren County School System had been told they would lose their accreditation by July 31, if certain requirements were not met. SACS officials, however, since have extended that deadline until Dec. 31.

Mr. Watkins explained that he had reviewed a recent cover letter from Dr. Elgart, concerning the extension deadline.

"I hope Gov. Perdue does not yield to the pressure from Elgart, given the veiled threat of his organization, which is accountable to an apparent few -- not one of whom includes a citizen of Warren County," Mr. Watkins said. "At least my clients remain accountable to the ballot box."

The Atlanta lawyer said Dr. Elgart's letter "appears to layout a pretext to ensure a desired outcome: removal of my clients from their constitutionally elected offices. For example, Elgart suggests, in part, that the anticipated change in the composition of the board resulted in an extension date and reservation of the right to drop accreditation until Dec. 31."

Dr. Elgart explained that the reason the extension was given was to be fair to the citizens of Warren County.

"In all fairness to the community, we wanted to give them time to demonstrate whether or not that change would matter. Our decision was completely out of concern for the community, the families of students who attend the schools of Warren County. We could have taken the action based on the evidence that we had gathered which was the school system had not made significant progress to regain accreditation. In the absence of any change in the makeup of the board, the accreditation of the system should be lost because there has been no progress of any significance made in the time frame we provided the school system."

Mr. Watkins said he questions whether AdvanED will be satisfied if the governor removes only one of the three school board members.

"Moreover, the (SACS) Review Team consistently fails to name any particular board member as culpable," Mr. Watkins pointed out. "Instead, it frequently indentifies the entire board as responsible for violations."

In fact, he added, Dr. Elgart noted at the hearing that the school superintendent "was culpable for violations of the accreditation standards along with my clients, Mr. Watkins said.

"However, the governor is targeting only my clients for removal when he could have brought formal charges against the entire board and the superintendent," Mr. Watkins added. "AdvanED is threatening its own credibility. It conducts semi-secret investigations. It relies upon unnamed stakeholders. It fails to specify evidence used to draw its conclusion and it issues reports that name no members of its review team."

Mr. Watkins believes that officials with other school systems should keep alternative accreditation with their state agencies, like that of the Georgia Accreditation Commission (GAC).

"Unfortunately, the superintendent of Warren County Schools opposes submitting an application to GAC to protect the students she is supposed to be serving," he said.

Gov. Perdue, meanwhile, is not expected to make a decision on whether or not to remove the three school board members until Thursday or Friday of this week, a source says. Administrative Law Judge John B. Gatto already has rendered a recommended decision that those three elected officials be removed from office by Gov. Perdue.

Mr. Watkins recently defended Mrs. Roberts, Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver in legal action brought against them by a nine-member citizens' group.

Since then, Judge Gatto has made a recommendation decision to Gov. Perdue that calls for the removal of Mrs. Roberts, Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver.

Web posted on Thursday, August 05, 2010

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