September 1, 2017 | News

Superintendent Ann Levett working with Savannah-Chatham school board to avoid penalties

Writer: Jenel Few

Published August 31, 2017
Savannah Morning News

If an upcoming investigation validates reports of Savannah-Chatham Public School Board dysfunction, high school accreditation could be at risk and state officials could opt to remove the entire board.

Superintendent Ann Levett is working with the nine member school board to avoid both scenarios.

“As a team of 10 I hope we will be able to work together to support an agenda to work in a unified manner that moves the district forward,” Levett said.

AdvancEd, which oversees the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation process, could place the district on probation if investigators determine members of the Savannah-Chatham Public School Board have violated the accreditation agency’s standards.

Being under review by SACS doesn’t change the district’s accreditation status, but districts that end up on probation could lose accreditation if they fail to comply with SACS mandates. Students who graduate from unaccredited high schools are ineligible for Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships and admission to most colleges and universities.

Because so much rides on SACS accreditation, Georgia lawmakers may remove school boards that run afoul of SACS.

Former Superintendent Thomas Lockamy blamed School Board President Jolene Byrne for divisive and obstructive behavior that undermined his administrative authority and interfered in district operations. Staff members under Levett have complained that Byrne and other board members have frustrated the work of the current administration.

Complaints of interference began immediately after Byrne was elected in 2015 and have continued, despite two SACS warnings and a series of team building workshops with facilitators from the University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government. Board members have been accused of drafting policy and agreements without staff input, demanding oversight of spending requests and access to staff evaluations, meeting privately with vendors, forcing principal changes, insisting on special placements for their children and disparaging staff on television and social media.

But the law doesn’t single out individuals when SACS puts districts on probation because the expectation is that effective boards can restore order. If a single school board member is deemed so uncooperative and dysfunctional that the district’s accreditation is at risk, the state recommends removal of the entire board.

“It’s all or nothing,” said Phillip Hartley, a Georgia Schools Board Association attorney who explained the process to the school board and top administrators last week.

The fact that inappropriate actions of a few could impact the academic opportunities of so many students, as well as the political future of the entire school board, didn’t sit well with several school board members. Some demanded that board colleagues who have been embroiled in controversy and conflict with administrators own up to their behavior, apologize and pledge to adhere to SACS guidelines so they can all work together moving forward.

But no one has confessed to any wrongdoing so far.

In the event that SACS places the district on probation and state officials respond by removing the board, those who feel they have been wrongfully dismissed may appeal. But to convince state officials to put them back on the board they have to prove that the district is more likely to maintain its accreditation with them than without them.

Levett isn’t waiting for apologies and pledges. Immediately after their SACS investigation workshop she issued a letter explaining the situation to students, staff and the community. Then she encouraged the board to work with her and her staff for the sake of the students, the district and its SACS accreditation.

“It is my hope that the board will understand their role as policymakers, support my role as the chief officer hired to implement policy, function in a way that supports academic programs and operations, and help us move the district forward,” Levett said. “I want people to know that we can work together to ensure that our accreditation is not placed at risk at all.”