After a relatively peaceful school board meeting earlier this month, a struggle over the direction of public education in Athens resumed in earnest last week, with unnamed parties filing a complaint with an accreditation agency against certain school board members. Meanwhile, the board of education is preparing to vote next month on a plan for the West Broad School property while many questions remain unanswered, and the relationship between the Clarke County School District and tenant the Athens Land Trust continues to disintegrate.
In response to open records requests filed by Flagpole and others, CCSD released an Aug. 9 letter last week from the accreditation agency AdvancED (formerly known as SACS, or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) informing Superintendent Demond Means that unnamed “community stakeholders” have filed complaints against “some members of the Board of Education,” again unnamed. The complaints allege that those board members lack knowledge of board policies, are working to undermine Means and micromanage the district, and “are influenced by special interest groups that are satisfied with the low student performance of some groups of students, thereby support inequitable opportunities and expectations for learning across all student groups.”
Board President LaKeisha Gantt compared those complaints to an ethics complaint filed against Means in May, calling them flip sides of the same coin. But she said she had no information other than what is in the letter from AdvancED. A meeting is scheduled for Thursday to discuss the complaints.
It’s unclear what the complainants want AdvancED to do, but the complaints could have serious consequences for the district. In 2008, SACS revoked Clayton County’s accreditation due to infighting on the board and other infractions, such as violating open meetings laws, and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue replaced four board members. Clayton County was still feeling the effects 10 years later, according to a 2018 AJC article.
Flagpole sought further documents from CCSD, but attorney Michael Pruett responded that searching email accounts for “advanced” would “yield an impossibly high number of documents.” (As a side note, at press time, Pruett also took four weeks to fill a request for a list of employees that had left CCSD during the 2018–19 school year.) We are seeking a copy of the original complaint from AdvancED.
It also came to light last week that CCSD had been posting online the names of people who have filed open records requests and the contents of those requests—though not of the responses. That’s highly unusual and could have had a chilling effect on citizens seeking information. Chief of Staff Xernona Thomas, who handles open records requests, quickly removed the list after being asked about it. She told Flagpole that she did not know they had been posted. However, someone put them up intentionally, because the site warned people that their name and request would be posted.
This soap opera is playing out against the backdrop of a looming vote on Means’ proposal for the West Broad School. He informed Athens Land Trust Executive Director Heather Benham at 4:05 p.m. on Aug. 8—too late to sign up to speak at the board meeting that night—that he intended to recommend letting the memorandum of understanding allowing the land trust to operate a community garden and farmers market on the property expire at the end of the month.
Under Means’ $7.4 million plan, the 10,000-square-foot historic building on Minor Street would be renovated and include a health clinic, meeting room and “student success center” where students could fill out job and college applications. A new 27,000-square-foot building fronting Campbell Street would contain 20 new early learning classrooms. CCSD currently has 125 children on a waiting list for early learning slots.
A group that includes the land trust called West Broad Rising submitted its own plan for the property last year, after the school board punted again and issued a request for proposals. It also calls for renovating the historic Minor Street building and using the property as a community center while maintaining the garden and farmers market. Athens-Clarke County has offered to kick in $3 million from a SPLOST fund for youth development, and the land trust has lined up matching grants. Contrary to rumors, CCSD would pay nothing while continuing to own the property and lease it to the land trust.
Technically, though, the September vote will be on hiring an architect to design the facility Means envisions, so the West Broad Rising proposal won’t even be on the table. And with the board adding five new members since January, are any of them even aware of it?
Means’ plan also doesn’t address several potential obstacles to state approval. The property is across the street from a nightclub that sells liquor, so siting a school there today would violate state law. The plan may not meet state standards in other ways, too, such as the parcel’s small size, the amount of traffic on Broad Street, adjacent properties’ commercial zoning and lack of a plan to handle traffic. Those are all issues CCSD administrators have yet to publicly address.
Gantt said the board has not received any information on those topics, and she is not sure if they’ll be a part of the board’s Sept. 5 work session. She referred questions to the board’s property committee. The property committee did not discuss those issues at its most recent meeting, though, and is not currently scheduled to meet again before the Sept. 12 voting meeting.
It’s entirely possible that no one will end up with what they want—that the land trust is kicked out, the garden bulldozed over and the historic schoolhouse continues to deteriorate while CCSD circles back around and tries to find a Plan B. Regardless, based on the land trust’s recent interactions with CCSD, it appears that the district administration wants the West Broad Market Garden out. The fate of the garden has become the third rail of local politics, pitting factions on the board and in the community against each other.
In June, CCSD Chief of Operations Dexter Fisher tried to put a stop to a carnival the land trust was planning on the West Broad School property. Fisher had concerns about insurance for a bounce house and alcohol being served, Means wrote to Benham following an email Benham sent to school board members. Such issues fall “within Mr. Fisher’s job responsibilities,” Means wrote. However, even after being informed that the land trust had an insurance policy covering the bounce house, Fisher persisted in trying to shut down the carnival, according to Benham.
“We had anticipated the district’s efforts to disrupt our celebration, so we intentionally worked with the county and neighbors to set up the carnival off of school district property,” Benham wrote to the board. “Our efforts were rewarded when he called the afternoon before the event, and we were quickly able to let him know that he had no leverage to shut down the celebration. He then showed up at the carnival to inspect our activities without talking to staff; this does not lead to a feeling of community collaboration.”
The land trust also alleges that CCSD pressured the University of Georgia to not participate in a wellness fair at the West Broad School Aug. 17. “Unfortunately, Dr. [Suzanne] Lester was informed by CCSD that if she wanted to partner with CCSD in the future, she cannot bring her free clinic to West Broad,” Cameron Teeter, the West Broad Market Garden’s manager, wrote in an email obtained by Flagpole.
Lester, a UGA/Augusta University Medical Partnership professor who runs a mobile health clinic, denied that CCSD had anything to do with the clinic not participating. Lester said she is working to secure a partnership with CCSD to have the mobile clinic regularly come to Clarke Central High School to serve the Rocksprings/West Broad neighborhood, but that’s not the reason she opted out. She couldn’t find volunteers to staff the clinic on a weekend on short notice, she said, and one-off appearances at events isn’t really what the clinic does. It functions more like a primary care physician on wheels, making twice-monthly appearances in low-income neighborhoods like Pinewoods and Garnet Ridge—both primarily Latinx immigrant communities—to treat regular patients, so building strong ties with communities before committing to serve them is important.
“My goal is health care,” Lester told Flagpole. “I don’t want to get involved in any politics that are out there.”
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