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One of the nation’s top accrediting agencies has placed Atlanta Public Schools on probation, giving its fractious school board nine months to shape up or force the ultimate penalty on thousands of students: loss of accreditation.

The announcement, which set off a chain reaction of worry and condemnation in one of Georgia’s most visible school systems, had nothing to do with the system’s academics. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools focused entirely on the governance of the city’s school system by its elected board, which was warned in October that members’ infighting had reached a dangerous level.

Losing accreditation can affect students’ eligibility for scholarship money, including Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, college acceptances and federal funding. It also could depress property values throughout Atlanta and scare away companies that are considering a relocation to the city.

In a strongly worded statement on Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal said he will “make every effort to ensure that Atlanta’s children are not harmed by the adults who have failed them. … We must do everything possible to stop an embarrassing situation from snowballing into a destructive situation.”

Mayor Kasim Reed and many APS parents called for the board to step up.

“Let’s stop the Kabuki theater and acting like a simple majority is a way to run a board. It’s not,” said Reed, who warned board members to work seriously with SACS.

“We ask each board member individually and personally to commit to doing whatever it takes to meet the requirements and exceed SACS’ expectations,” parent Cynthia Briscoe Brown, co-president of the North Atlanta Parents for Public Schools said.

School board members greeted the criticism soberly.

“We have to own our role about how we got here,” Vice Chairwoman Cecily Harsch-Kinnane said as members met in a special afternoon session to begin reviewing the SACS report, which was released in the morning. Members, who are known far more for their bickering than their decision-making, then made a mutual decision for the first time in months: They talked with each other to gain consensus about what key points they wanted to convey to the public.

“We’ve been given an opportunity to meet the demands and recommendations of this review and prove the board can work together to get it done,” Harsch-Kinnane said.

Probation for Atlanta means the system keeps its accreditation but has been put on notice. The board has until Sept. 30 to make progress on six “required actions” to improve its leadership and performance. It must also submit two progress reports to SACS, the first by May 1 and the second two weeks prior its review by Sept. 30.

Atlanta is the sixth Georgia system in three years to face a formal accreditation sanction. Clayton County lost its accreditation in 2008; it has since been restored, but the system remains on probation and will be reviewed by SACS this spring.

Also in metro Atlanta, SACS will visit DeKalb County schools next week to determine whether a full-scale investigation is warranted.

The probation announcement was another body blow to the Atlanta Public Schools system, which is in the midst of a criminal investigation into test cheating and which is also seeking a replacement for Superintendent Beverly Hall.

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