School board, citizens group react to accreditation report

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

EASLEY — At least two Pickens County School Board trustees are confident the board can address continued concerns from AdvancED in a manner that will be satisfactory to the accreditation agency.

The findings cited by the agency have led to fears by district officials and supporters that the school district could lose its accreditation.

But Phillip Bowers — one of the board’s newest members after being elected in November along with Henry Wilson — said he feels there are positives from the report that should be emphasized.

“Although we still have a lot of work to do, I was encouraged by what they did not say, as many of the issues first identified have been resolved and are no longer referenced in the report,” Bowers said. “Last June, they renewed our accreditation to 2019 and have followed up with additional information, so we will address them to the satisfaction of AdvancED moving forward.”

A letter sent last week to the school district by AdvancED state director Darrell Barringer stated there had been “little to no progress” toward two required actions cited during a March 24 visit that featured interviews with board trustees and district staff.

Through those interviews, officials said it was clear “that specific board members continue to function outside the defined roles and responsibilities of a board member. The lack of compliance with AdvancED standards has reached a severe level of non-compliance.”

In addition, the report states “the unwillingness of specific board members to comply with the recommendations of the first monitoring team and their continued lack of respect for the AdvancED standards has placed the district in a seriously compromising situation.”

In its 14-page letter, AdvancED requested that the district respond in writing to its concerns by June 15.

“There is always room for improvement, so with half the board being new, imperfection is not totally unexpected,” Bowers said. “I believe we are on the right track to close out this very important matter very soon.”

Board member Alex Saitta has been critical in the past of AdvancED, saying in December 2013 that its findings don’t “carry the same weight as state accreditation.” However, Saitta took a more conciliatory approach in his comments to The Journal on Thursday.

“Last June, AdvancED renewed the district’s accreditation to 2019, and progress with respect to required actions is generally revisited two years following the initial review,” Saitta said. “They have followed up with concerns on roles and responsibilities and want us to now look at the meeting agenda and committees. The chairman will get some clarity from AdvancED on that and then we’ll address those concerns.

“I’m confident we’ll do that to AdvancED’s satisfaction over the next few months.”

School Board chairman Brian Swords, who submitted a response letter to AdvancED Wednesday, disputed the notion that “little to no progress has been made” by the school board regarding the agency’s findings.

“We believe progress has been made since the spring of 2014 on the issues of conflict of interest, evenly split votes, capital needs policy and financial management because those are not part of the most recent report,” Swords said. “However, we take very seriously our obligation to maintain a fully accredited school system for our students, staff and community.”

Swords added the board has proposed the following plan of action that “will result in better governance and operations for our school system as well as resolve the concerns observed by AdvancED.”

The negative correspondence provided by AdvancED officials toward the school board of trustees hasn’t gone unnoticed by Concerned Citizens of Pickens County and co-founder Robin Nelson Miller.

“I co-founded Concerned Citizens of Pickens County in January of 2014 in response to the first AdvancED report that cited poor board governance and have been following the words and actions of our school board trustees very closely since,” she said. “I concur with the stakeholders who commented that the board we currently have is even more driven by political agendas than the board that was evaluated last year. Indeed the lack of respect for teachers, administrators and stakeholders has been demonstrated consistently by this board, and several members seem incapable of voting in the best interest of our students.

“My prayer is that our non-compliant board members possess the self-discipline to ratify policies that satisfy AdvancED’s required actions and that they will be compelled to do so. I am grateful for the excellent leadership demonstrated by (superintendent Danny) Merck, Dr. Swords, (trustee Judy) Edwards and (trustee Herbert) Cooper.”