Samuel Johnson once said that “nothing focuses the mind like a hanging”. That adage can be amended to say that nothing focuses a school board like the threat of the loss of accreditation. And if that adage holds true, consider the Atlanta Public Schools board members to be duly focused.

On Wednesday, AdvancED, the world’s largest accreditation agency that accredits Atlanta high schools, placed Atlanta Public School board members on a nine-month probation for violating their governance and leadership policies. With 49,000 students, this is the largest school district ever placed on probation. And if the Atlanta school board fails to meet the conditions of their probation, the effects could be catastrophic for both Atlanta high school students, and the city of Atlanta in general.

According to the AdvancED report, the nine-member school board has been the picture of dysfunction. For the past year, an acrimonious 5-4 voting split between the board members has led to “in-fighting, bickering, failure to adhere to the system Charter, failure to follow in-house legal advice, failure to follow appropriate procurement procedures, and using valuable board member time to promote private agendas.”

During their interviews with parents, Atlanta Public School staff, and other stakeholders, AdvancED found that board meetings had been “dominated by adult issues, with little or no concern about students.” And when you go through the transgressions listed in the report, their argument is compelling.

The acrimony on the board began when five members on the board decided to change board policy for the purpose of changing the sitting board chair and vice chair. The original policy stated that in order to remove a board chair or vice chair, a two-thirds majority was required. On a 5-4 vote, the board ignored legal advice that the policy change was illegal, and replaced the chair and vice chair with a simple majority vote. This resulted in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the policy change.

The board also skirted around their own policies and procedures to work with unauthorized vendors, with the Chair authorizing work without the Board’s knowledge.

These weren’t the only scandals to hit the Atlanta Public Schools. Last February, nearly two-thirds of Atlanta schools were under scrutiny for possible cheating on the Criterion Reference Competency Test (CRCT) state standardized test. Suspicious erasures on the test led to a commission being formed, where last August, 58 of 84 Atlanta schools were shown to have various evidence of cheating. In some cases, twelve schools were actively found to have manipulated the tests of their students.

As for the personal conduct of board members, that’s also proven to be problematic. After having been warned once about using the school district credit card for person purchases, a board member continued to rack up over $800 dollars worth of charges, resulting in a censure and $2500 fine.

The constant bickering among the board members, the deterioration of trust between the board and the public, all contributed to an atmosphere within the Atlanta school system that was described in the AdvancED report as contributing to “negative morale” among school system employees. This is a huge fall from grace for a board that only a year earlier was named as an Urban Board of Excellence.

“The Atlanta Public School System’s Board of Education was recognized as one of the best school boards in the nation just over a year ago. The board has an opportunity to recapture what made it one of the most effective and dynamic school boards in Georgia, but only if the board addresses its current issues with dedication and commitment to it’s overall success,” stated Dr. Mark Elgart, President and CEO, AdvancED. “If not addressed, these challenges could seriously detract from the district’s educational program and limit the district’s ability to fulfill its mission.”

And it’s under this backdrop that the board must select a new superintendent by July 2011. AdvancED’s decision to place the Atlanta Public Schools on probation came as no surprise to Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, and he feels that the board’s inability to work together is discouraging quality superintendents from applying for the position.

“You need stability and leadership at the top…let’s stop with the Kabuki theater and acting like a simple majority is the way to run a board. It’s not,” said Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed. “And the bigger threat is that we won’t be able to get the most talented people in the country to come here. And I can tell you they won’t because I’ve been talking to be people who are considering applying for the superintendent position. And the number one issue they raise is governance.

“Now if the school board wants to keep going, this is going to end up in a way that I don’t think is favorable for them,” Reed concluded.

That unfavorable place is the Georgia state legislature. Georgia governor Nathan Deal has already asked for meeting with Mayor Reed and the Atlanta legislative delegation to talk about the probation. Deal, a Republican, has already appointed two liaisons, the Democrat Stacey Abrams and the Republican Beth Beskin, to report to him about the board’s progress during the probation.

AdvancED laid out a specific list of conditions before the Atlanta Public Schools can be removed from probation. Included are efforts to regain the trust between the board and the community, work with a professional mediator to resolve the board’s communication issues, make sure policies are followed, and refocusing on the children of Atlanta.

If the board fails, and loses their accreditation, there are dire consequences. Atlanta students applying for college could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage as colleges prefer students coming from schools with a proper accreditation.

But there are other ramifications. A big selling point for perspective homebuyers in any city is the quality of the school district. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, when Clayton County, Georgia lost their accreditation in 2008, the effects were felt far beyond the schools. Thirty percent of the homes in Clayton County lost value in 2008, and today, 80 percent of homes in the county have had their home values adjusted downward.

For the Atlanta school board, probation is a wake up call, but it should send shivers down the spine of boards across the country. When school board members forget that their purpose is not the retention of their own power, or their own personal needs, but the welfare of the students under their stead, then if they need to either be reminded or removed. The nine members of the Atlanta Public Schools have nine months to make a case that they’ve remembered what once made them a board to envy. Right now, no one wants to sit in their seats.