ATLANTA – Test cheating scandals. Indicted and jailed administrators. Loss of accreditation. Removal of school board members.
The recent headlines blasting area school systems prompted a Fulton County grand jury to look closely at the Fulton County School System (FCSS) to determine whether similar issues were present. In the end, the investigative review by the grand jury found a well-run school system, headed by effective leaders with a clear direction.
Gillen Young of Alpharetta, who served as the grand jury foreman, said the decision to look into the FCSS went beyond the normal scope of the jury, but the 23 jurors felt compelled to take on the additional work. The grand jury served for a two-month period ending Jan. 3.
“We read the grand jury handbook, and read we [had the power] to investigate any Fulton County office or officeholder,” explained Young. “We were right in the middle of a lot of publicity about the [cheating scandal] in the Atlanta schools, and asked ourselves ‘could the same things happen in Fulton County?’”
An “invitation” to appear Dec. 18 before the grand jury was sent to Superintendent Robert Avossa on Dec. 12, 2013. It stated the committee was interested in “lessons learned from the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal” as well as teacher retention/turnover and principal tenure/turnover over the past seven years.
Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard noted the request for a Dec. 18 meeting with the grand jury was not a subpoena, but the issue was important to the jurors.
“The grand jurors are of the opinion that the [APS situation] had attracted negative attention to our community …The mere fact that it happened and received the extraordinary level of national publicity is a serious concern for them,” wrote Howard in his letter to Avossa.
The superintendent said he welcomed the opportunity to talk about FCSS and brought with him Linda Schultz, president of the Fulton Board of Education, Finance Director Robert Morales and legal counsel Glen Brock, among others to the four-hour meeting.
“We all decided it would be a great opportunity to talk about what we are doing in the Fulton County School System. We are doing good work, we have nothing to hide and we want to share it,” said Avossa, who has been Fulton’s superintendent for three years.
The grand jury’s Jan. 19 report concluded there is “minimal risk of experiencing undesirable media headlines. There appears to be strong, effective leadership on the part of Dr. Avossa and an effective working relationship with the elected school board.”
Young said he has been a management consultant for more than two decades and lauded the system’s strategic plan that sets out goals over a five-year period.
“If you don’t have a [clear] direction, it’s hard to know where you want to go,” said Young. “I was very impressed that they spent the time to develop a [strategic plan] that lays down a clear path.”