State Director, AdvancED Georgia SACS CASI
3745 Cherokee Street NW
Kennesaw, GA 30144
Dear Dr. Bryans,
I am responding to your letter of March 29, 2011 in which you cite complaints received by your organization containing allegations that the Cobb County School District is in violation of the AdvancED SACS CASI Accreditation Standards and/or policies. Under my professional obligation as superintendent of the school district, I am providing an official response to these concerns as well as assuring you that our school district and Board of Education intend to take all appropriate steps to ensure compliance with all SACS CASI standards.
The Board of Education is unanimously committed to addressing these concerns, even to the extent of identifying and correcting instances where the letter of laws, regulations, policies, and standards has been followed, but Board actions nevertheless may have fallen short of modeling effective governance.
Under the Vision and Purpose standard, you noted allegations about the process by which the board approved a vision statement, including that “repeated attempts by the administration to discuss and move the vision forward were ignored and subsequently delayed by the board. The board reverted to the vision statement used prior to the development of the strategic plan with little discussion. Moreover, this has resulted in a lack of communication with the district’s stakeholders in understanding and embracing the vision and purpose of the district.”
The Board of Education acknowledges a lack of full attention to the process of developing and approving a vision statement. Even though the board was in unanimous agreement in adopting the vision statement — A Community With A Passion For Learning — in November 2010, this process deserved more formal discussion among board members and the community. Consequently, adoption, communication and implementation of the vision statement have not been effective.
The board believes it has adopted the correct vision statement to represent the ideals and purpose of the Cobb County School District. This vision statement had been in place prior to the board’s recent strategic plan development. The board was unable to agree on a new vision statement, which delayed the process and resulted in some frustration among district administrative staff.
Eventually, the board concluded that the vision statement already in place perfectly represents the vision, ideals and purpose of the district and the strategic plan. At that point, in December 2010, the board unanimously re-adopted the vision statement: A Community With A Passion For Learning.
The delayed process and resulting frustration did not promote an enthusiastic acceptance of the approved vision among district staff and stakeholders. To address these concerns and ensure compliance with the SACS CASI Vision and Purpose standard, the board will make efforts to publicly embrace the approved vision statement by stating or displaying the vision at the open of each board meeting (for broadcast on the district’s cable TV channel and live web stream).
Additionally, the board will direct administration to move forward with efforts to communicate the vision to build stakeholder support. Some of the steps that will be taken include:
* Producing posters that include the vision statement for display throughout each of the district’s 114 schools.
* Including the vision statement on all district letterheads and printed materials.
* Including the vision statement on the log-in screen of all district computers.
* Researching the possibility of including the vision statement on all of the district’s 1,000 school buses.
Under Governance and Leadership, you noted the following allegations:
* The process by which the board recently approved a system calendar has eroded public trust and public confidence in board members’ ability to govern stemming from the “efforts of four board members to exclude their fellow colleagues and use their personal and political agendas to drive school board decisions, including the decision regarding the calendar.”
The process of approving a system calendar in February 2011 was legal, but did not represent the spirit of effective governance. The board was hasty in raising the issue and voting to replace a three-year calendar that had been approved by a prior board, and had been in effect only five months. The effort to change the calendar was led by three newly elected board members, along with one veteran board member who is also board chair.
In November 2009, when the three-year balanced calendar was approved, board member Alison Bartlett stated, “I was not willing to change the calendar because we had already set it and I thought it was wrong to go back and undo what we had already set where people had already set their calendars, so that is why last time I voted the way I voted because it wasn’t right to go and do that.” In February 2011, as board chair, Ms. Bartlett did vote to change the calendar just six months prior to the start of a new school year.
The newly elected board members had campaigned on the issue of changing the calendar, but should have recognized their first priority on being sworn in was to become acclimated to and informed about district operations, and trained in the basics of school board leadership and effective governance. Had these first steps been taken, the new board members and one existing member may have considered a more productive consensus-building approach to honoring their campaign promises.
Instead, these four board members immediately brought the issue to the table for a vote, despite the division it caused with their three board member colleagues and within the community. The board chair appointed two of the newly elected board members to work with the superintendent to develop alternative calendars. Additionally, the board chair directed administration to conduct an online survey of stakeholders on the calendar issue and present the results to the board in less than one week’s time. The survey results indicated overwhelming opposition to changing the calendar, but the four board members nevertheless put the item on the board meeting agenda and, by a 4-3 vote, changed the school-year calendar.
The result has been widespread anger and distrust among a large contingent of the district’s stakeholders. Many stakeholders have voiced their displeasure at board meetings, public forums and in the news media, and have complained that the four board members who voted for changing the calendar failed to provide a valid rationale for doing so other than the fact that they campaigned on the issue. Other stakeholders have submitted multiple Open Records Requests to district administration asking for data pertaining to the calendar issue and board member emails. Retrieving information in response to these requests has consumed many hours of staff time. Additionally, on April 1, 2011 the entire Board of Education was summoned to appear before the Cobb County Grand Jury to answer questions about the calendar approval process, among other issues.
The calendar issue has created stark division between the four supporting board members and the three opposed. One of the opposed board members, David Banks, has used his constituent email newsletter, David’s Grapevine, to publicly criticize his four colleagues, and in at least one instance used the district’s email network to distribute the newsletter. These actions are a clear violation of district policy and the board’s own ethics policy.
* The board’s “interference in the day-to-day operations of the system by working to minimize and neutralize the administration of the school system.”
* At the Nov. 11, 2009 school board meeting, board member Alison Bartlett said that teachers from five schools had told her their principals “coerced” them to vote a certain way on a staff survey regarding district calendar options. “I got phone calls from some teachers that were concerned that they felt like they were being coerced into which calendar to vote for. Then as I kept talking to the teachers across the county in different meeting and things I have come across, I think there was a few principals that did that but not the majority of our principals. But again, we do have a few that didn’t act properly but the majority I feel like did allow their teachers to vote the way they wanted to vote.”
These comments resulted in an investigation that found that the survey was conducted properly and there was no evidence of coercion by principals. Ms. Bartlett did not provide the investigator with the names of teachers who complained about being “coerced.” Any suspicion or evidence of improper conduct by employees should be reported immediately to the superintendent. These allegations of coercion by principals were never reported to the superintendent prior to being announced in a public board meeting.
* A Nov. 17, 2009 Marietta Daily Journal newspaper editorial states: “Enough of the board ignoring what some of its members have privately told the MDJ is a surplus of ‘dead wood’ in the central office.”
* At the Jan. 14, 2011 school board meeting, board chair Alison Bartlett opened a discussion on changing district policy to end the ability of district employees to accrue unused vacation days. Board member David Banks publicly accused Bartlett of seeking “revenge against the principals that soundly denounced your false accusations back in 2009.”
* A Feb. 22, 2011 Marietta Daily Journal article contains the following quote from board chair Alison Bartlett: “There are a lot of lies being spread on Facebook concerning board members. Constituents should choose to educate themselves before they continue the gossip. It is scary because this is how people like Hitler came to power. They believe the untruths. I think it’s really sad when the administrators perpetuate the lies. It is very discouraging as a proponent of public education to see the lack of respect from people that interface with our children on a daily basis.”
Comments like those cited above can damage organizational effectiveness and can undermine the superintendent’s role. The board should adhere to the SACS CASI Governance and Leadership standard and its requirement that the board: “Recognizes and preserves the executive, administrative, and leadership authority of the administrative head of the system.”
* The board has violated Open Meetings Act criteria, and board members have inappropriately shared confidential information from closed meetings with the news media.
* On Thursday Jan. 6, 2011, three newly elected board members — Kathleen Angelucci, Tim Stultz and Scott Sweeney — were sworn into office in the board room of the district’s central office. Immediately following the ceremony, the three new members along with board member Alison Bartlett, who was in attendance, announced to the superintendent and the news media that they were calling a board meeting for that Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011.
This meeting was called despite the fact that the full board was scheduled to meet for its regular work session the following Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011. The work session is the first of two board meetings each month, and the board uses the work session to set the agenda for the later meeting. Historically, the school board has used the January work session as an opportunity to welcome new board members, set a meeting schedule, and elect a new board chair for the calendar year. Instead, the three new board members and Ms. Bartlett met on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011 and elected Ms. Bartlett board chair and Mr. Sweeney vice chair with their majority four votes and no other board members present.
The four members added several items to the upcoming work session agenda. The other three board members were notified of the meeting, but were unable to attend due to prior commitments.
While this meeting did not technically violate the Georgia Open Meetings Act, it nevertheless represented an affront to board protocol and effective governance, and prompted the following written comment from board member David Banks in response:
“This [meeting] not only flies in the face of openness and transparency that each of the Republican candidates for School Board campaigned on, but has set a tone of mistrust and suspicion that may well have compromised the congeniality and close working relationships necessary and vital to move forward.” Additionally, the discord and mistrust caused by this meeting would appear to violate the board’s ethics policy and its provision that board members promote a “spirit of harmony and cooperation in spite of differences of opinion”.
* On more than one occasion in recent months, the Marietta Daily Journal newspaper has printed either direct references to discussions that have taken place in closed board executive sessions, or revealed information that came from those discussions. The Aug. 28, 2010, Feb. 1, 2011 and Feb. 5, 2011 “Around Town” columns each refer to executive session discussions pertaining to district personnel, and reveal confidential information shared by one or more board members.
* The board’s “lack of effort to meet requirements for training,” as identified as a required action in the 2009 Quality Assurance Review.
As required in the 2009 SACS CASI Quality Assurance Review, the board has scheduled and begun training sessions with the Georgia School Boards Association. The first training session occurred on April 13, 2011, and additional sessions will take place at successive board work sessions.
In the interest of full disclosure, the information included above is an effort to be as forthright as possible in responding to the allegations brought to our attention by AdvancED. These allegations and the evidence cited in response raise genuine concerns about the Cobb County Board of Education’s ability to govern effectively. In my professional opinion, the board’s current structure is not effective. However, I strongly believe the board can become effective if it continues with recent efforts to conduct ongoing training and address the issues that have caused division and mistrust among the board and its stakeholders.
Board training is a crucial component in building the trust, respect, shared values, knowledge and understanding among each board member of his or her role. Had the board initiated this training immediately following the installation of three new board members, many if not all of the issues cited above may have been avoided. That training is now under way, and I am confident that positive results will be apparent to district stakeholders as the sessions proceed.
In closing, I believe that our Board of Education is committed to the AdvancED SACS CASI accreditation process, and, specifically, to the seven Standards For Quality Schools. I am confident the board is fully engaged in rectifying these concerns pertaining to the standards as quickly as possible. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to these allegations and look forward to working with your organization in whatever capacity is necessary to ensure compliance with all accreditation requirements.
Fred Sanderson, Superintendent