The AJC has posted the long piece on SACS that many posters read yesterday in the print newspaper and urged me to open for discussion on the blog. I wanted to wait until it was online so I could provide a link.
Written by AJC reporter Heather Vogell, the story on AdvancEd and its president and CEO Mark Elgart addresses mounting criticisms that the accrediting agency has overstepped its bounds and arbitrarily focuses on petty governance squabbles among school boards while ignoring more serious academic lapses in districts.
My own question is whether SACS is assuming the role that voters should assume — monitors, critics and watchdogs of the people they elect to run their schools. In the Clayton County of a few years back, voters elected a poor slate of school board members. SACS essentially did what voters should have done and rousted the bunch from office.
So, in some senses, SACS saves voters from the bad decisions they make in choosing the boards that manages their schools and their school taxes. If a similar governing board existed for the General Assembly, I bet there would be sessions where legislators would be put on probation or even lose accreditation. But there is no private monitoring agency hammer to come down on erring lawmakers, so voters have to live with their choices.
According to the story: (This is only an excerpt. Please try to read the full piece.)
AdvancED, run by hard-charging President and CEO Mark Elgart, has since 2006 built a brand that boasts it drives quality education for 27,000 schools and 16 million students in 69 countries.
But with a seemingly magnetic attraction to discord, AdvancED is rapidly accumulating critics who say the agency has no place meddling in the politics of elected school boards. Accreditation, they complain, has become a weapon wielded by powerful interests — such as the business lobby — when they don’t get their way. And AdvancED stands to benefit.
“They’re enjoying the notoriety this is giving them,” said Sam Wilkinson, a school board member in Burke County, N.C., whose district is set to lose accreditation in June. “In their eyes, it’s made them seem important again.”
Georgia is ground zero for accreditation trouble: Six of the eight districts that AdvancED has put on probation nationwide are here.
Like some of the districts it polices, AdvancED itself appears to be at a crossroads.
It took in more than $21 million during each of the past two fiscal years, records show. It moved into a spacious new building — a sleek, modern glass castle with high ceilings and ample seminar rooms — in an Alpharetta office park.
But tax records show the agency was more than a half-million dollars in the red in the 2009 fiscal year, with assets that declined by about $3 million. It carries $9.5 million in debt for the new facility.
AdvancED and SACS are facing legislative challenges, too. While Georgia passed a law last year elevating the importance of accreditation, North Carolina lawmakers are considering a bill that would bar public universities from considering SACS credentials for admissions or scholarships and make the state the primary accreditor, instead.
The story also looks at Elgart’s role in the disputes on the APS board, disputes that some people contend are simply the messy price of democracy and should not be treated as dysfunctions requiring SACS intervention.
In October, the new chairman, Khaatim Sherrer El, asked SACS to mediate. But Elgart’s role quickly escalated from peacemaker to judge.
E-mails obtained by the AJC show Elgart drafted a memo on Oct. 23, signing Burks’ and El’s names, proposing the district consider hiring AdvancED for “mediation and professional support services.” The memo said El would step down and Burks would regain the chair.
That plan, it said, “will remove the concerns of the State of Georgia and SACS regarding the state charter.” The memo, Elgart told El and Burks, should be sent to the entire board. It never was. El did not step aside.
Elgart now says El agreed to the moves during a phone call but changed his mind. However, records show El sent Elgart an e-mail after the call and before the memo, rejecting the idea of restoring Burks.
Two days after drafting the memo that went nowhere, Elgart sent a formal letter to Hall and Burks, whom he called the board’s “chairperson,” warning that the district’s accreditation was at risk because of failures to meet the AdvancED standard on governance and leadership. Three months later, despite a judge’s ruling that El’s chairmanship was legitimate, SACS issued a scathing report castigating the board for infighting. It said some members’ actions “eroded public trust.” SACS put the district on probation.
“The charges in the SACS report are vague,” Fort said. “They wanted to tell board members how to vote, which I think is beyond the pale.”
In Wake County, N.C., AdvancED’s heavy hand almost cost it a client. Last year, the NAACP complained to SACS about the school board’s move to dismantle a long-standing student assignment plan that sought to achieve socioeconomic balance in schools. A new board majority advocated the change. AdvancED threatened to downgrade the district’s accreditation. But the board didn’t back down.“A school board cannot be required to cede its statutory authority over student assignment as part of an accreditation review,” board lawyer Ann Majestic wrote to AdvancED.
The board considered dropping AdvancED accreditation altogether, but didn’t, and in March, the organization put Wake on “warned” status — a step from probation. Elgart said recently the primary problem has been the board majority “ignoring” data that showed the current student assignment system was successful.
The disputes involving SACS, AdvancED and Elgart in North Carolina have been unpleasant enough that state representatives introduced a bill March that could undercut the organization. The proposal would bar public colleges and universities from using information related to high school accreditation to determine admissions, loans or scholarships except when the state does the accrediting.
The bill would also make the state responsible for developing a rigorous accreditation program for public schools.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled board