HOLLY SPRINGS —School Board member Kelly Marlow told the crowd at her town hall meeting Wednesday night that she was not elected to sit down and go along, and defended her actions in filing a complaint with AdvancED, the agency that oversees accreditation for school systems.
Marlow, who represents Post 1 of the Cherokee County School District, told the crowd of about 40 supporters, tea party members and school employees at the Holly Springs Train Depot Community Center that her job is to make sure tax dollars are spent wisely and to see the school district staff does its job.
“I’m accountable to the taxpayers of this county,” Marlow said. “My job is to make sure that this professional staff that we have hired to run the school district does their jobs, and I have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that your tax dollars are spent wisely.”
Marlow recognized some who attended, including state Rep. Scot Turner (R-Holly Springs) and Republican Party Chair Rick Davies.
She noted the “head of the Canton Tea Party Patriots Carolyn and David Cosby.” Carolyn Cosby introduced Marlow to the group and said that local media was “vacillating somewhere between the National Inquirer and The New York Times.”
Marlow also criticized the local media for their coverage of complaints made about her.
“I have a stack of people’s letters to the editor that they have written to the Tribune, that they will not print, they will not print,” Marlow said. “That’s why I have a website and that’s why I have a blog. And that’s why I have town hall meetings. And I’m hoping that the media that’s here today will be fair about this.”
Cherokee Tribune Managing Editor Rebecca Johnston said that all letters to the editor the newspaper has received about Marlow have been printed. Letters must meet the newspaper’s guidelines, and she said that those she has received met the criteria.
Readers have the opportunity to post comments about the topic on the Tribune website at cherokeetribune.com and dozens of comments were posted there on the topic, she said.
“We routinely publish all letters on all sides of issues, and welcome comments from our readers. We do ask that they conform to our guidelines,” Johnston said.
The policy states that the Tribune encourages letters to the editor on topics of general interest, but reserves the right to edit them for content and length. Letters should be no longer than about 250 words and include the writer’s name, address and daytime telephone number for verification.
Website comments are subject to moderator approval before going on the website but are not edited. The use of profanity, obscene and vulgar language, hate speech and racial slurs is strictly prohibited, Johnston said.
During Wednesday’s meeting, when asked by an audience member about the ultimate goal of her complaint letter to SACS and her call for a formal investigation, Marlow said she wanted SACS to “take a look at our governance and our board and see if they can make it work” because right now people are being told to “sit down, not care and follow orders.”
“I didn’t run for office to go along, I ran for office to ask questions and understand,” Marlow said. “I didn’t address anything about the educational quality in our education system, I didn’t necessarily even ask questions about why our audit is so really, really, really confusing and messed up, and why it was hidden for so long, I didn’t bring that up. I said, ‘I’m asking questions that my constituents want to hear that are going unanswered, SACS, please come and help me, please come in and help this board do their jobs.’”
Marlow said if SACS put the CCSD on accreditation probation, it would mean only the board was on probation. However, a spokesperson for AdvancED, the agency that includes SACS, said Thursday if the district is put on probation, it means the entire district is on probation, not just the board.
“One of the components that SACS looks at is ‘does you board follow its policies?’ ‘Is your board able to effectively govern?’ That’s what I’m questioning,” Marlow said. “If we are put on probation during an investigative period, and nothing’s wrong, then nothing happens. If we are put on probation during an investigative period, I believe, and people can correct me if I’m wrong, that it would be the board that would be on probation, not the school district and not the diplomas.”
AdvancED SACS Vice President of Communication Jennifer Oliver said Marlow’s complaint hasn’t been reviewed yet, and if the district were put on probation it shouldn’t affect students since the school district would still be accredited during any investigation.
“It would mean that the entire district is on probation,” Oliver said. “(If the district were put on probation) it would mean there are serious concerns about whether the school system can continue to meet the standards for accreditation.”
Oliver said probation “is a huge leap from where we are right now.” Oliver said the complaint hasn’t been reviewed, so AdvancED doesn’t even know if the complaints relate to their accreditation standards yet.
Oliver said if the district did lose accreditation, high school diplomas would no longer come from accredited schools and that may influence the ability for CCSD students to get scholarships or to get into certain colleges. When asked if Cherokee Charter Academy would be affected if CCSD lost accreditation, Oliver said that since CCA isn’t accredited through the CCSD, its accreditation would not be affected.
Marlow said “if people are worried about the SACS complaint being filed by an individual board member, look no further than Mike Chapman, because Mike Chapman did that very thing, and the board did not sanction him and SACS did not come and investigate, that happened just last year.”
Marlow said Chapman filed a complaint with AdvancED SACS “without the board’s permission and without a board vote.”
However, on Thursday Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo said Chapman did not file a complaint, but he did ask a question of SACS.
Petruzielo said, “Mr. Chapman spoke by phone with AdvancED President/CEO Dr. Mark Elgart to ask how the Cherokee County legislative delegation’s proposed legislation to change the School Board Chair to an elected position (and to change all other School Board posts, then-countywide at-large seats, to seats elected by specific geographic districts) could impact the Cherokee County School District’s SACS-CASI accreditation.”
The response letter sent to Chapman following their conversation was obtained through an open records request Thursday. The response letter sent from Elgart to Chapman on Feb. 27, 2012, stated, “This communication is in response to your inquiry …”
“Cherokee County Schools have enjoyed over a decade of success because of the strong and stable leadership of its governance leadership team which includes the Board of Education and Superintendent,” the letter read. “Any legislation that would disrupt this successful track record would be unfortunate.”
When questioned at her town hall meeting if she had asked other board members to go along with the complaint to SACS, Marlow said, “Yes.” Marlow said the reason other members didn’t go along was because it’s considered a “bold step.”
“Did I tell them prior to filing the complaint that I was going to file it, and the reasons I was going to file it? Not in so many words, but let me tell you what I did do: I met with the board members who were willing to meet with me,” Marlow said.
Marlow said she’s willing to take some responsibility for her complaint that the school board can’t effectively govern.
“If the board that I’m on can no longer effectively govern, I am part of that board,” Marlow said. “I am willing to say, maybe I can’t either. I am part of this board as a whole and I’m willing to put that out there and say this board can’t govern; this whole board can’t govern.”
Marlow said at her meeting the last time CCSD was on accreditation probation it was because of “academics.”
Copies of correspondence between the school board and SACS related to the October 1997 complaint and subsequent recommendation for accreditation probation that Marlow was referring to were obtained through an open records request and show the investigation centered instead on school board member actions. In January 1999, in a report on the investigation, SACS wrote that there were four complaints made against CCSD.
The complaints were, “1. School board member(s) accompanying parents to parent-teacher conferences, 2. School board member(s) encouraging school system personnel to ignore line and staff policies, 3. Individual school board member(s) giving directives to personnel, sometimes conflicting with directives given by other school board member(s), and 4. School board member(s) using obscenities when giving directives to personnel.”
In all of the correspondence between SACS and the school board, academics were not mentioned as a reason for the accreditation probation. A member of the audience Wednesday asked what the names and qualifications were for the people on Marlow’s personal budget audit committee and Marlow said “It was a group of citizens that are CPAs, a group of five citizens.” Marlow then said to the person who asked, “You’re welcome to come to the next one and meet them in person.”
Marlow said that the last school district budget report was “off by $30 million.”
“I have a problem with that, and I think everybody should, whether you’re in fear for your job or not. You should be afraid and mortified about these audit findings; I am. I’m hoping you are,” Marlow said.
CCSD Director of Public Information, Communications and Partnerships Barbara Jacoby said the auditors found no evidence of mismanagement in the report.
“There was no missing money, all monies are accounted for and the auditor found no evidence of financial mismanagement,” Jacoby said.
Marlow said “What has been uncovered is some pretty significant bookkeeping weaknesses, bookkeeping problems.”
“Do I understand what all that means, absolutely not,” Marlow said. “What I would very much like to do is to sit down with our board and with the auditor, with our accounting staff and understand, but I’ve been told no.”
Marlow said she would post the seven pages of questions she and her personal budget audit committee have come up with about the final audit report online at her website for anyone to see them. Marlow said, “That’s why I have a website.” Marlow gave the final word of the meeting to a 63-year-old school district custodian, who said Marlow was the only school board member who made an effort to speak to him about his concerns regarding privatization of custodial services.