School accreditation agency may open records

by: Richard Belcher Updated:


ATLANTA - Channel 2 Action News has learned that the powerful accrediting agency The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, has approached the state about negotiating changes that could open some of its records for the first time.

State Attorney General Sam Olens told Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher that he would like to negotiate an agreement with SACS rather than try to change the state open records laws.

Olens agrees with critics who contend there is no state or local government agency in Georgia that has the kind of power SACS does, and because of that, there is little transparency.

SACS's records have been off limits and its reports are based on anonymous interviews for which there are no transcripts, but its effect on three metro school systems has been potent.

Housed in an office park in Alpharetta, SACS, which is a part of the larger group called Advanc-Ed, is a $24 million per year powerhouse, the largest accrediting agency in the world.

"You've got an agency that's got tremendous power, unfettered power," said Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. "So the fact that we as the public cannot even see what they're doing is sort of remarkable."

Advanc-Ed placed DeKalb County Schools on probation, and two years before that it was the Atlanta School System and three years before Atlanta, Clayton County Schools lost its accreditation. But in none of those cases did SACS make transcripts, recordings or notes available to the public.

"Do you know of any other agency in public life, that has this much power and that little transparency?" Belcher asked Olens.

"No," Olens replied. "If you put a school board on probation, you're adversely affecting the property values in that community. You're adversely affecting the students' ability to go to college."

Although not named by SACS, Atlanta School Board Chairman Khaatim El was clearly the target of SACS's criticism. He resigned five months later.

In DeKalb County, SACS's probation led Gov. Nathan Deal to remove six elected school board members.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Attorney Danielle Obiorah, who represents ousted school board chairman Eugene Walker.

Obiorah grilled Advanc-Ed CEO Mark Elgart about what she said are factual errors in SACS's DeKalb County report.

"They can't produce notes. They can't [produce] recordings. They can't produce any evidence that would give you any confidence that what's in the report is accurate," Obiorah said.

If SACS were a government agency getting records would be easy. But SACS is private. It's not subject to the Georgia Open Records law, and Georgia's attorney general said it probably won't be.

"I think that would be very difficult because it's a private business," Olens said.

Olens told Belcher he is encouraged because Advanc-Ed's chairman said he now wants to discuss possible changes that could open up the company for the first time.

"I think more transparency is absolutely needed, but I'd prefer the change to be non-legislative. I'd like it to be voluntarily accomplished," Olens said.

"I don't know whether it needs to be legislation. I don't know whether it needs to be a court case, but it does need to be made clear that this agency should be transparent," Manheimer said.

Until SACS produces at least some records, Danielle Obiorah said she is skeptical about the organization's work.

"There is nothing in this report that gives me any confidence that they try to verify any of the accusations," Obiorah said.

SACS declined to make anyone available to answer questions on camera.

Elgart sent Belcher an email saying that SACS reports are supported by multiple sources of information and documentation. About the anonymity of sources, he said people who give SACS critical information often fear retribution.

Elgart emphasized that SACS is not subject to the open records law.

We'll follow this to see what SACS offers in talks Olens.