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August 2--  The Montgomery County school system has been placed on probation for the coming school year by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

A SACS review team visited the school system in June due to complaints it received from citizens in the county.  The team's report contends the county school board has violated nine accreditation standards and possibly state law regarding open meetings and conduct of board members.

Reverend Adrian Bell of Uvalda has been a vocal critic of school board personnel and financial decisions and says, "I hate that our system is on probation.  It is not a good thing.  I do not relish the fact whatsoever, but I think it is the right decision.  Now, hopefully, with the laws that are in place in Georgia, now we can truly going back to getting things under control and restoring confidence in the board of education from the citizens of the county."

The school board has been given until December 15th to correct the noted violations and stand re-inspection by another review team.  School board chairwoman Deloris James says, "We are committed to addressing the eight required actions that SACS has delineated for us.  We are committed to providing the best education and we're more than happy to meet the requirements they set for us.  We believe we'll be a better school system by taking care of those required actions."

School Superintendent Randy Rodgers says the probation status does not impact the school system's accreditation this year nor will it impact any of the high school's graduates as far as their academic records are concerned.

The SACS report noted, "Two very distinct factions exist between two prior school superintendents who still live in the community, one of whom is now on the board."  It said many stakeholders believe some board members, along with the prior superintendents, are focused on personal agendas at the expense of children served by the system.

A copy of the team's findings is below.

Findings

Based upon the information collected and reviewed, the Special Review Team found sufficient evidence to support a finding that the school system is in violation of AdvancED Standards and policies for District Accreditation.

The Special Review Team found the following Standards violations:

Standard 2.2: Recognizes and preserves the executive, administrative, and leadership authority of the administrative head of the system.

Interviews with stakeholders and review of documentation of the Montgomery County

School System revealed the following four superintendents resigned in less than a four

month timeframe. Dr. Lynn Batten resigned after three years as superintendent

following the election of three new board of education members, Mr. Reggie Roberts

resigned after three weeks as interim superintendent, Dr. Larry Daniels resigned one day

after being named interim superintendent, and Dr. Charles Warnock was in the position

of interim superintendent for six weeks (but only worked 18 days) before resigning.

 

At the January 24, 2011 board meeting, the board of education approved personnel

recommendations that were offered as considerations from the prior superintendent. He

had resigned on December 31, 2010. At the time, Mr. Roberts was still serving in the

capacity of interim superintendent and did not support the recommendations that were

approved by the board. Even though Mr. Roberts resigned that night as a result of the

board not supporting his leadership, his term of office was still effective until January 30,

2011. Therefore, the board made personnel recommendations and voted on the

recommendations, conflicting with their own board policy. At this same January 24,

2011 meeting, the board hired Mr. Larry Daniels as interim superintendent after he was

interviewed during the Executive Session of the board meeting. This action appears to

violate state law, which mandates activities appropriate for discussion during Executive

Sessions.

 

The team observed that the actions taken by the board indicated that it was the board’s

expectation that the role of the superintendent within the district was to adhere only to

the wishes of the board. An interim superintendent was named in haste that evening.

Individual board members have consistently been directly involved in personnel

decisions by instructing the superintendent regarding who should be transferred, hired,

or dismissed as opposed to voting on the personnel recommendations made by the

superintendent. School board members have even failed to acknowledge the

superintendent’s personnel recommendations. On March 7, 2011 and on March 21,

2011, the board failed to act on the personnel recommendations of Dr. Warnock, the

interim superintendent.

 

On March 24, 2011, the current Superintendent, Mr. Randy Rodgers, was named

immediately after the position was vacated by Dr. Warnock on March 23, 2011. The

position was not advertised as vacant nor was the interview process followed pursuant to state law. Dr. Warnock told a reporter when he resigned that he refused to be “a puppet for school board members” whom he claimed have “a personal and political agenda.” In a media release dated March 23, 2011, Dr. Warnock indicated, “It is not my wish to have a hand in any further wrong-doings to the employees and students of this school system.My actions and recommendations have been dictated by my professional experience and Christian values. It appears that the Board does not share my beliefs, and a severance of our relationship is appropriate at this time.”

On May 26, 2011, the Board interviewed Dr. Henry Walding for the position of principal of Montgomery County High School during the Executive Session of a called board meeting. Kathy Bradford, assistant editor of the Vidalia Advance, informed Superintendent Rodgers that according to David Hudson, Georgia Press Association General Counsel, candidates for principal could not be interviewed during Executive Session. Superintendent Rodgers ignored this media inquiry and proceeded to conduct the interview during Executive Session.

Interviews revealed numerous indications that some board of education members are

personally and politically motivated as opposed to being focused on utilizing best

practices in fiscal responsibilities and fairness to employees. For example, the board’s

chairperson told Superintendent Warnock, “They were ready to ‘clean out’ Central

Office. They had already succeeded in removing Clark, Roberts, and Adams.”

In a signed letter dated March 27, 2011 to the SACS Special Review Team, Mr. Reggie

Roberts made reference that he had been instructed by the current school board

members to meet with Mr. Luke Smith, principal of Montgomery County High School,

and inform him that he would not be approved for employment for the 2011-2012

school year. Additionally, the board expressed concern about employees receiving

compensatory time, and Mr. Roberts was directed to inform Mr. Smith that

compensatory time would no longer be granted to employees. Mr. Roberts stated that he

“resigned the position [of interim superintendent] because he was unwilling to make the

[personnel] recommendations the board proposed.” Mr. Roberts’ letter further

indicated, “When I was named [interim] superintendent, the board chairperson publicly

stated that if I did not continue as superintendent, that I would be allowed to return to

my previous position as assistant superintendent. This was also written in my contract.

However, on March 21, 2011, my contract was non-renewed for the 2011-2012 school

year.”

Standard 2.3: Ensures compliance with applicable local, state, and federal laws,

standards, and regulations.

The Special Review Team, through interviews and a review of board meetings and

artifacts, found that the Montgomery County School Board failed to comply with local

board policy BH - Code of Ethics for School Board Members (adopted January 3, 2011)

and Georgia state law in the following areas:

o Domain I: Governance Structure

􀂃 1. Recognizes that the authority of the board rests only with the board

as a whole and not with individual board members and act accordingly

􀂃 2. Supports the delegation of authority for the day-to-day administration

of the school system to the local superintendent and act accordingly

7 | Special Review Team Report

􀂃 5. Not undermine the authority of the local superintendent or intrude

into responsibilities that properly belong to the local superintendent or

school administration, including such functions as hiring, transferring, or

dismissing employees.

o Domain II: Strategic Planning

􀂃 4. Render all decisions based on available facts and his or her

independent judgment and refuse to surrender his or her judgment to

individuals or special interest groups.

o Domain III: Board and Community Relations

􀂃 1. Seek regular and systemic communications among the board and

students, staff and community.

􀂃 2. Communicate to the board and the local superintendent expressions

of public reaction to board policies and school programs.

o Domain V. Board Meetings

􀂃 3. Work with other board members in a spirit of harmony and

cooperation in spite of differences of opinion that may arise during the

discussion and resolution of issues at board meetings.

􀂃 5. Maintains the confidentiality of all discussions and other matters

pertaining to the board and the school system, during Executive Session

of the board.

􀂃 6. Make decisions in accordance with the interests of the school system

as a whole and not any particular segment thereof.

􀂃 7. Express opinions before votes are cast, but after the board vote,

abides by and supports all majority decisions of the board.

o Domain VI: Personnel

􀂃 1. Consider the employment of personnel only after receiving and

considering the recommendation of the local superintendent.

􀂃 2. Support the employment of persons best qualified to serve as

employees of the school system and insist on regular and impartial

evaluations of school system staff.

􀂃 3. Comply with all applicable law, rules, regulations and all board

policies regarding employment of family members.

o Domain VII: Financial Governance

􀂃 1. Refrain from using the position of board member for personal or

partisan gain or to benefit any person or entity over the interest of the

school system.

o Conduct as Board Member:

􀂃 3. Communicate in a respectful professional manner with and about

fellow board members.

􀂃 4. Take no private action that will compromise the board or school

system administration.

Evidence shared with the team revealed that the current Superintendent, Mr. Randy

Rodgers was named immediately after the position was vacated. The position was not

advertised as vacant as mandated by state law. Another potential violation of state law

occurred when the board interviewed Dr. Daniels, a candidate for principal, during

Executive Session. Additionally, the board may have been in violation of Georgia’s

Open Meetings Act as a result of assembling together and conducting a meeting during

a bus trip to Eastman, Georgia.

Some members of the board of education are engaging in numerous activities in areas of

terminations, transfers, and other personnel matters without regard to due process, staff

evaluation, and/or professional improvement plans. The board chairperson publicly

campaigned against the Special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) referendum

through the use of full page newspaper advertisements and flyers, even though the

majority of the board voted to pursue this funding option. Georgia state law specifies

that board members may inform the public of facts regarding a SPLOST referendum.

However, the campaigning of a board member’s opinion regarding the SPLOST is

another potential violation of state law.

Standard 2.5: Builds public support, secures sufficient resources, and acts as a steward of the system’s resources.

Public support and staff and student morale have diminished during recent months due

to school board and leadership upheavals according to stakeholders as shared during

interviews. There is a pervasive atmosphere of bitterness and fear by stakeholders

throughout the district. There is distinct fear by staff members that if they speak out

against the board, they will lose their jobs. One student in an interview with the local

media indicated, “I pray that the Lord really works miracles on the board because those

people really need those jobs.”

The board has terminated or transferred all system and school level leadership since the

January 2011 board meeting, during a time when the system was under the leadership of

four interim superintendents and now a first-time superintendent. Additionally, these

actions took place when three new board members had been in position for only a few

months. There is public concern regarding the numerous transfers and terminations

with no apparent personnel or reorganization plan in place that has been communicated

to stakeholders.

Standard 2.6: Maintains access to legal counsel to advise or obtain information about legal requirements and obligations.

Stakeholders stated that the legal counsel for the board is not always appropriately

consulted and when consulted, the advice is not always followed.

Standard 2.9: Creates and supports collaborative networks of stakeholders to support system programs.

The majority of the representative group of stakeholders interviewed by the Special

Review Team indicated that they had not received any communication initiated by the

district pertaining to changes in personnel or to changes in the direction of the school

system. Two very distinct factions exist between two prior superintendents who still live

in the community and one of whom is now on the board. Interviews revealed that

many stakeholders believe some board members, along with the prior superintendents,

are focused on personal agendas impacting the district and the community at the

expense of children served by the school system.

Additional responses from stakeholders revealed that they have many unanswered

questions, feel accountability should be greater, would like changes to be explained, and

feel communication is poor. Further, many interviewed indicated that the school

system’s leadership is “broken and needs to be fixed.”

Standard 2.10: Provides direction, assistance, and resources to align, support, and

enhance all parts of the system in meeting organizational and student performance

goals.

The team discovered a lack of evidence of a proposed plan supporting the major

changes that have taken place. These decisions appear to be driven more by emotions

and personal agendas as opposed to systemic, systematic, and sustainable plans to

improve the school district. Stakeholders expressed, “We can support a plan if we know

there is a plan and direction.” Also, there appears to be a lack of honesty and

transparency on the part of the board and the current superintendent. Parents

expressed that the behaviors/conduct of the board members and the superintendent

were not appropriate for those responsible for the quality of education in Montgomery

County. Parents also are concerned that the system’s goals and vision are not being met,

administrators and board members are not providing leadership, and everything is being

politicized. All stakeholders would like for the school district to move forward with a

shared focus on student achievement.

Standard 2.11: Provides internal and external stakeholders meaningful roles in the

decision-making process that promote a culture of participation, responsibility, and

ownership.

Furthermore, representatives of the stakeholder groups indicated that they had not been

involved or given the opportunity to provide feedback regarding changes impacting the

direction of the school system that have been implemented since January 2011.

Additional responses from stakeholders revealed that they have many unanswered

questions, feel accountability should be greater, would like changes to be explained, and

feel communication is poor. There is no evidence of a plan on the part of the board to

deal with personnel changes and the finances of the school district, nor has any

information been communicated to stakeholders.

Parents expressed concern that the school system’s goals are not being met and there

has been no structured opportunity for parents to engage in discussion regarding their

concerns.

Standard 2:12: Assesses and addresses community expectations and stakeholder

satisfaction.

There is significant concern about the possible loss of students to surrounding school

districts because of the turmoil that exists in the district. There is confusion on the part

of the stakeholders regarding the necessity for all of the administrative changes, in

particular because the students are performing at relatively high academic levels in

comparison to surrounding school districts. Additionally, concerns were expressed that

the turmoil in district leadership has created questions about the community’s ability to

attract and retain new businesses, industries, and families.

Standard 5.2: Establishes and implements a process to assign professional and support staff based on system needs and staff qualifications as may be required by federal and state law and regulations (i.e. professional preparation, ability, knowledge, and experience).

There is a pattern of assigning and transferring professional staff in an arbitrary manner

without sufficient regard for the best interest of students, staff, the community, and the

school system. Some assignments and adjustments appear to be the result of retaliation

for expressing opinions and ideas contrary to those of some board members. Without

advertising positions or seeking a pool of qualified applicants, the board approved

numerous administrative staff members including the high school principal and the

current superintendent.

Accreditation Status

Based on the findings of the Special Review Team, it is concluded that the Montgomery County School System is in violation of the following AdvancED Accreditation Standards for School Systems: Standards 2.2, 2.3, 2.5, 2.6, 2.9, 2.10, 2.11, 2.12, and

5.2. It is the recommendation of the Special Review Team that the Montgomery County School System be placed in the accreditation status of “Probation” for the school year 2011-2012. The probation status provides the school district with the opportunity to address the problems identified in this report and to ensure that the Standards for Accreditation are being met. The team further recommends that the Montgomery County School System, with the cooperation and leadershipof the Board of Education and superintendent, address the following Required Actions by December 15, 2011, and schedule and host a Monitoring Visit prior to that date to assess progress.

Required Actions

The institution must fully address the following Required Actions made by the Special Review Team:

1. The Montgomery County Board of Education and superintendent must develop and

implement a communication plan with timelines to keep stakeholders informed of the

district’s purpose and direction. The plan must be an earnest effort to operate in a

transparent manner that will lead to a rebuilding of respect and trust among the

community stakeholders and school system staff.

2. The Montgomery County Board of Education and superintendent must develop and

implement a strategic plan with timelines that involve representatives from various

stakeholder groups in the planning and implementation of the strategic plan.

3. All board members must consider and vote at a board meeting to support and uphold

the Board Code of Ethics - Policy BH, adopted January 3, 2011 and individually sign a

commitment of agreement.

4. The Montgomery County Board of Education must ensure that all actions and

behaviors of board members are fully aligned with the official board policies, applicable

laws, and all AdvancED Accreditation Standards. The Board is responsible for

monitoring its performance and, as such, should consider and take appropriate action

when any member of the Board fails to act in accordance with board policies, applicable

laws, and Accreditation Standards.

5. The Montgomery County Board of Education and superintendent must develop a plan

and timeline for comprehensive board member training by a recognized training

organization with proven experience in training local Board members (i.e. Georgia

School Board Association) in the areas that follow: board member roles and

responsibilities, superintendent and board relations, working as a team, communicating

with and involving all stakeholders in the education process, financial responsibilities,

board ethics, and appropriate disciplinary action for board members.

6. The Montgomery County Board of Education and superintendent must develop and implement a plan with timelines for handling the current budget crisis. This plan should provide opportunities for stakeholder input. The plan should include proposed cost cutting processes and personnel changes with justifications for each change.

7. The Montgomery County Board of Education and superintendent must make decisions based on information provided by the school system staff, data, and other results in support of student achievement. Conflict of interest must be removed from the decision-making process of the school system and the Board and superintendent must demonstrate that decisions are made in the best interest of the school system as a whole.

8. The superintendent must present a monthly, detailed financial statement to the board and make it available to the staff and to the public. The Montgomery County School System should request that a Monitoring Team be appointed by AdvancED to make an on-site visit to assess the progress of the school system in meeting the Required Actions listed above. The Monitoring Visit should be scheduled to occur no later than December 15, 2011. All expenses of the review team pertaining to the Monitoring Visit are the responsibility of the district and to be paid by the district. Additionally, the district will be required to submit an Institutional Progress Report documenting progress relative to the Required Actions. A template for completing the Progress Report will be provided by the AdvancED Georgia office. The Institutional Progress Report must be submitted no less thantwo weeks prior to the on-site Monitoring Visit. Further, the AdvancED Georgia office isavailable to provide assistance, if needed.

Next Steps - Using and Acting on the Report

A copy of this report is sent to the superintendent. The school system shall use the report to guide its response to the findings and its improvement efforts. The school system is accountable for addressing the Required Actions identified in this report within the specified timeline. It is the responsibility of the superintendent to ensure that the content of this report is shared with the community.

Closing Comments

The board members and the superintendent of the Montgomery County School System,

individually and collectively, must work cooperatively to establish a culture that promotes effective governance and professional operations for the benefit of their most important constituents - the children they serve. The board of education and the superintendent must diligently collaborate to inform the community, and put into practice, that board members are obligated to serve the interests of the entire school district even though they are elected by a segment of county residents.

It is clear to the members of the Special Review Team that the continuing accreditation of the schools in Montgomery County is highly regarded and a source of pride among the community. However, continuing accreditation is in serious jeopardy. The actions of board members are in direct conflict with their own policies and AdvancED Accreditation Standards, resulting in a loss of respect for the board by the stakeholders of the school district. Evidence reveals that the current board is not demonstrating the ability to provide consistent, positive, and effective leadership in moving the system forward.

Serving on the board of education is an admirable endeavor for those who seek to lead and support education. However, board members who demonstrate behaviors that create disruption cause unnecessary injury to the work and reputation of the board and the school district. Such behaviors breed fear, mistrust, confusion, and a lack of focus among school and district stakeholders. During the process of the review, the Special Review Team interacted with a group of community leaders and administrators dedicated to the students and to the community. It is incumbent upon the board to help create and preserve an overall environment that is free from threats, intimidation, and retaliation toward school system employees. The schools belong to the community, and it is time for board members to respond to stakeholder expectations by focusing on district improvement.