By Maria Saporta
Friday, March 18, 2011
A broad-based coalition of business, civic and community leaders are urging Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to do everything he can to prevent the Atlanta Public Schools from losing its accreditation.
The blue-ribbon Atlanta Committee for Progress (ACP) told Reed March 14 that the school system must become his top priority and that he should explore every avenue available — including state involvement — to break the governance logjam that currently exists on the Atlanta Board of Education.
While leaders fell short of calling for a state takeover of the school system, many said it’s time for the mayor and state leaders to develop a plan of action to prevent Atlanta’s public schools from losing accreditation.
“This has to be dealt with as a crisis,” said Phil Kent, CEO of Turner Broadcasting System Inc. who is chairman of the Atlanta Committee for Progress. “The idea of Atlanta losing its accreditation is intolerable. I don’t even have kids, but I’m outraged by this.”
In an interview after the meeting, Reed said he had hoped that the city could have worked with the existing school board to come up with a resolution. But there’s been little progress, and now there’s little time to act during this state legislative session.
“That path is not yielding results,” the mayor said. “I’m talking to legislative leaders about a remedy that you can put in place.”
Reed, however, did not offer specifics on what the state and the city could do to solve the APS board governance issues.
“Whatever move I would be involved in would be temporary,” Reed said. “There needs to be some temporary power given to resolving this issue because the city and state can’t take failure of the path we are on.”
The mayor said the message he heard at the ACP meeting was that “this problem has to get to the center of your plate.”
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has placed the Atlanta Public Schools on probation because of its governance issues. The most significant factor is that the board is split into two opposing groups with the current chairman — Khaatim Sherrer El — holding a 5-to-4 majority. If the board fails to resolve its governance issues, APS likely would lose its accreditation in the fall.
Several community leaders described the situation as a crisis.
“We don’t want the schools to lose accreditation,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights leader who has been meeting with members of the black clergy on this issue. “I think we’ve got to have some action. I had hoped that the board would act on its own, and there wouldn’t have had to be the kind of action that might be necessary. But it doesn’t look promising.”
Lowery said APS board members “haven’t done anything” to resolve their differences. “I’m very disappointed that there seems to be a little more concern for power than for merit and integrity,” he added.
Foundation leaders, who have invested millions in Atlanta’s public schools in the past decade, also expressed great concern.
“There’s frustration; there’s a sense of urgency; and there’s a sense of helplessness,” said Curley Dossman Jr., president of the Georgia-Pacific Foundation who is the interim chairman of the Atlanta Education Fund, an entity that had been raising private support for the public school system. “People are wringing their hands to find out what is a reasonable outcome to avoid the devastating loss of accreditation.”
The Atlanta Education Fund had been in the midst of a $19 million fundraising campaign, and it had received pledges and gifts of $15 million.
“It has been very difficult to raise funds in an environment with such uncertainty around it,” Dossman said, adding that the foundation has “suspended” its fundraising effort. “We are unable to get new money coming in.”
Dossman added that he believes the mayor is “looking at every option to bring some sanity to the situation.”
Lowery, however, said he believed that the “last resort” should be a state takeover of the school system. “The mayor ought to use all the influence that he can use short of intervention by the state,” he said. “We all need to put more pressure on the board.”
Penelope McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, described it as an “urgent” situation.
“Even being on probation is having an impact,” McPhee said. Real estate leaders have said that families have been avoiding moving into the city of Atlanta and that private school applications have increased. “That’s a tragedy for a school system that was beginning to recruit the middle class.”
McPhee said the probation and the possible loss of accreditation “has huge long-term implications” for the city’s economic vitality.
“There was a unanimity at the ACP meeting that the civic leadership and the mayor need to do whatever it takes to get this on track,” she said. “I think the ACP really pushed the mayor.”
Reed has been reluctant to take on the problems of the school system.
Not only does the city not have any direct oversight on its public schools, he has his own thorny issues to deal with, such as pension reform.
“I’ve been spending an extraordinary amount of time on pension reform,” said Reed, adding that after the ACP meeting he recognized that “I need to turn my attention to being part of a solution” for Atlanta’s public schools.
“Atlanta can’t lose its accreditation,” said Reed, who has been meeting with several community groups concerned about the situation. “We all believe the situation is grave and requires action. Confidence in the Atlanta Public Schools has been undermined across the board.”
Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College, said it might be time for the state to play a role in supporting the mayor to take charge of the situation.
Currently, the “status quo appears to be on a collision course” with Atlanta losing its accreditation.
“In a crisis, leadership is needed,” Tatum said. “Given Atlanta’s role in the economic well-being of the state and the harm that would come from the loss of accreditation, it seems to me that the state has a vested interest in preventing that from happening.”
Jim Young, CEO of Citizens Trust Bank — a 90-year-old African-American financial institution — summed it up this way. “This is not a complicated issue,” Young said. “Our schools are at risk and that puts our community at risk and our city at risk. Something needs to be done. It threatens the very prosperity of the city. It’s a profile in courage moment.”