SACS has eyes on Grady school board
Members of the Grady County Board of Education are under additional scrutiny by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) for alleged misconduct of two school board members.
Through an examination of public records under Georgia’s Open Records Act and from interviews with parties involved, The Messenger has determined the identities of the board members accused of micromanagement and “abuse of power” to be Vice Chairman Scott Higginbotham and board member Jeff Worsham.
Both Higginbotham and Worsham refused to respond to repeated requests for comment.
Higginbotham and Worsham have allegedly acted inappropriately in their pursuit of making changes to the softball and baseball coaching staff at Cairo High School.
The SACS External Review Team learned about the alleged misconduct during a two-day review at CHS on April 16 and 17, 2013.
During those two days, according to the review team lead by Dr. Gary Dorough, “disparaging remarks were made about some of the school’s governing board members’ attempts to usurp the principal’s authority. It was clear to the review team that recent events of some of the governing board members concerning athletics was a distraction to the administration and staff during the review. Board members using their assumed powers to micromanage the school athletic program is a blatant abuse of power.”
Once the team’s report was received by the SACS office in Atlanta, officials in May requested a response from then superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis. Pharis issued his response on June 26, just days before his retirement, and on July 2, Jay Wansley, Georgia’s associate director of AdvancED, of which SACS is a division, notified Superintendent Lee M. Bailey of the accreditation agency’s concerns.
Wansley wrote, “The serious nature of this comment, gleaned from interviews with staff and parents, caused our office to request that former Superintendent Mr. Pharis provide information regarding the concern about possible interference in the day-to-day operation of the school by school board members. In his response, Mr. Pharis indicated that there had been interference in the Cairo High athletic program and interference in the employment of staff by one or more school board members.”
Wansley noted, “Pursuant to state statute, it is the responsibility of the superintendent to make personnel recommendations and the Board has the discretion to accept or reject the recommendations. It is a violation of AdvancED Standards for board members to become involved in the day-to-day operations of the district or schools.”
The AdvancED official also wrote to Superintendent Bailey, “If the allegations are indeed valid, corrections must be made to make sure an effective governance leadership team is in place to guide the work of the district.”
As a result of the letter from SACS, Superintendent Bailey has scheduled a special board training session centered on board duties and responsibilities. The training session will be held Monday, Aug. 12 from 5:30 until 8:30 p.m.
Bailey has contacted former Thomas County superintendent Dr. Larry R. Green to conduct the board training.
Green served as the Thomas County superintendent for eight years and then worked for five years as the executive director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency. He was appointed interim superintendent of Miller County for seven months during the upheaval there that eventually resulted in Gov. Nathan Deal ordering the removal of the members of the Miller County Board of Education.
“Larry has always offered to help me in any way he could. He has 40 years in the business and he helped out in Miller County when they went through all their problems,” Superintendent Bailey said.
Green, a native of Cairo and alumni of CHS, will also relate to the local board better, according to Bailey.
The training being planned is similar to training board members receive when they are elected, according to Bailey, but he says this session will focus strictly on board duties and responsibilities.
Superintendent Bailey says that the training may be more applicable now than when the members were first elected.
“It will be a good investment of their time,” Bailey said.
Wansley of AdvancED said he is also hopeful the upcoming board training will help “board members operate within the scope and parameters of their responsibilities.”
According to Wansley, incidents similar to those that have allegedly occurred here are not new. However, the AdvancED associate director said if the misconduct continues it should be reported to SACS immediately.
“You want to allow the new superintendent and the board to address these issues in-house, but if this behavior persists we need to know that the board training has not been effective,” Wansley said in a telephone interview with The Messenger Tuesday.
“We’ll give them a mulligan on this first instance but if it persists we’ll mount the Clydesdales and come down there,” he said.
The AdvancED officials praised Superintendent Bailey for being proactive and scheduling the special training for the school board members.
“To Mr. Bailey’s credit he is being proactive. However, it is incumbent on Mr. Bailey, if the interventions don’t work, to notify us,” Wansley said.
Wansley went on to explain that SACS has a procedure for accepting reports from school system employees, concerned parents or concerned citizens.
According to the associate director, the complaints would be handled anonymously, but he also said it would take evidence of continued misconduct to trigger additional action by SACS and AdvancED such as placing the school system on probation.
Should the board members continue to “step over the line” Wansley said a SACS team could be sent in to investigate. Upon a recommendation for probation from SACS the governor could order removal of board members not adhering to state law, SACS standards and the school board code of ethics.
“That’s way off. Let’s hope these incidents of stepping over the line do not continue to occur. Hopefully the board members don’t want to jeopardize education in the district,” Wansley said.
According to Wansley, each member of the board of education is required to sign an affidavit annually that they are abiding by the school board code of ethics.
Wansley pointed out under the Grady County Board of Education Code of Ethics, the board, on a two-thirds vote, can sanction any member found in violation of the Code of Ethics.
The Grady County Board of Education Code of Ethics specifically states under the Governance Structure: each member of the board agrees that he or she will: support the delegation of authority for the day-to-day administration of the school system to the local superintendent and act accordingly; not undermine the authority of the local superintendent or intrude into responsibilities that properly belong to the local superintendent or school administration, including the such function as hiring, transferring or dismissing employees.
From the comments made in interviews with the SACS External Review Team, school system public records and interviews with parties familiar with the school system it appears both Vice Chairman Higginbotham and board member Worsham have violated the code of ethics and SACS standards.
“We’re not going to go away was the essence of my letter to Mr. Bailey. We will continue to monitor the situation in Grady County,” Wansley said.
The concerns raised by SACS regarding the conduct of members of the board of education did not prevent Cairo High School from being reaccredited.