- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2020

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - A Georgia school district’s accreditation has been downgraded after an accrediting agency slammed its school board for questionable conduct.

The Athens Banner-Herald reports the Clarke County school district’s status was moved down to “accredited under review.”

The school system is still accredited by Cognia. Accreditation is supposed to signify a school meets minimum standards, and means colleges will accept its graduates’ diplomas. Cognia said it will check Clarke’s progress later this year.

In a statement, the 14,000-student district said the school board and administrators “will work to address all directives provided within the report.”

Cognia interviewed board members, administrators and teachers in January, following complaints to the agency in August and a subsequent report by then-Superintendent Demond Means in September.

Before those complaints, someone filed an anonymous ethics complaint against Means with the state alleging among other things that Means failed to disclose a financial relationship with a company he sought for the school system to hire.

In his own report, Means argued board members had overstepped their bounds and that intervention from the accrediting agency was “necessary to make significant and sustainable change in governance protocol.”

The school board placed Means on paid administrative leave in December and subsequently appointed his chief of staff, Xernona Thomas, as interim superintendent.

The agency faulted the school board, with Cognia giving the district the lowest possible grade of “insufficient” on a school board leadership standard.

Cognia’s report said its review team was told some board members are linked to community groups that were fighting Means’ efforts to improve the district. It also found “the board was not focused on continuous improvement of the school district in terms of student achievement.” and that “the lack of trust among board members and between some board members and the previous superintendent was overshadowing all of the work of the board and hindering progress toward meeting goals.”

Some school board members are ignorant of the board’s own policies and of Georgia open meetings law, according to the Cognia report.

Cognia investigators wrote that board members “appear to be unprepared for the meeting or misinformed regarding items on the agenda and spend needless time asking questions and engaging in discussions that should have occurred during the work sessions.”

School board President LaKeisha Gantt said in a statement that board members get regular training from the Georgia School Boards Association and “embrace” the chance for additional improvement. “We have begun work on our norms and are committed to policy review to maximize our performance as a governance board,” she said. “We will accommodate and support all aspects of the review.”

On another standard - “Leaders implement operational processes and procedures to ensue organizational effectiveness in support of teaching and learning” - the school district got the next-lowest grade: “initiating.”

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