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Though Trotter denies it, a former superintendent accused him of persuading the board to fire him. And the schools' accrediting body accused his association of convincing board members to help scrap a district-wide curriculum program.
Missteps by board led to a threat by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to take away the district's accreditation. It was the second time in five years the system had been given such a warning.
The last time a public high school lost its accreditation in the United States was in 1969 when the Duval County, Fla., school system refused to integrate schools.
It's not as if Clayton County has nothing going for it.
The county contains two-thirds of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In part because it collects $20 million a year in jet-fuel tax, it has some of the region's lowest taxes. Bell envisions an "aerotropolis" – essentially, a city surrounding the world's busiest air hub – that would lure conventions, businesses and travelers from schlepping up to Atlanta after getting off a plane.
And in a region where each drop of Lake Lanier's levels produces an audible gulp among its leaders, Clayton County's reservoirs are full to the brim. Its water system is considered one of the most progressive in the nation. Virtually drought-proof, the county's water needs are supported by four reservoirs scattered throughout the county.
The county's compact size also makes it nimble. Earlier this month, Clayton fell off the list of foreclosure hot spots. According to David Barton of the Realtors association, the market is on the path to stability. Chairman Bell says a building moratorium established in 2005 in key parts of the county has given it a jump start on bouncing back from a recession because the building pause helped lower the housing inventory.
Bell says Lake Spivey, an enclave of posh homes that straddles the Henry County line, is being eyed as a retirement community by such notables as Monica Pearson [nee Kaufman] and Gen. Russel L. Honore, the cigar-chomping general who oversaw New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While some families may be leaving because of the school board accreditation scare, Bell says others are arriving; of 3,300 homes listed last year, 3,100 were sold.
"Somebody outside of us sees something we can't see," he says. "And where some people see problems in Clayton County, I see challenges. And out of those challenges come opportunities."
The county's chaos is bookended by two economic engines – the airport to the north, and the Atlanta Motor Speedway to the south. It's on the cusp of finally completing a master plan that would help it come to grips with its sprawl. And a proposed commuter rail line to Griffin would pass through Morrow, Jonesboro and Lovejoy.
The county's biggest economic promise may lie in Fort Gillem in Forest Park, a 1,400-acre Army base that soon will be closed and available for redevelopment. Planners envision turning it into a mini-city with retail, residential, school and even industrial components. The city's development director says the project would double Forest Park's tax base.
"I look at Clayton and think, 'It's just a matter of time,'" says Dan Reuter, director of land use at the Atlanta Regional Commission, who points to a proposed redevelopment of the Hapeville Ford plant. "Especially with gas prices and all these other factors. Look at [developer Jim] Jacoby and what is happening with the Ford plant. He's going to build a major office and retail center. Then look down the street to Forest Park and what's planned for Fort Gillem. Give them a little more time, and some of those places in Clayton County will be desirable."
It's Tuesday night, July 15. The polls have closed for a primary election that's supposed to determine which of 58 candidates -- among them Bell, Hill, Kimbrough and the Scotts -- lead the county for the next four years.
But all day an issue that's been at the heart of Clayton County's problems has been on full display in empty polling stations: Even with all the uproar about the sheriff, the school board and the problems eating away at the community, only 21 percent of registered voters even bothered to go to the polls.
Some say one reason for the leadership struggles is the county's largely transient population. An estimated 67 percent of Clayton County residents are renters, a segment of the population that historically isn't vested in local politics. And Hatfield, the political scientist, says many of those who do vote select familiar names rather than investigating the candidates' platforms and background.
"Today it's difficult for voters to know who a lot of these people are on the ballot," he says. "They haven't lived here long; it's difficult to know their qualifications. So we elect people" – he starts to chuckle – "who obviously shouldn't be holding public office."
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