An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found that the head of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools pressured the chairman of the Atlanta School Board to step aside last fall.

SACS president Mark Elgart doesn’t dispute that he wanted Khaatim El to step down from the chairmanship.

Channel 2’s Richard Belcher said Elgart told the newspaper El agreed to step down and then backed out.

That incident is part of a larger pattern reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which SACS appears to have taken on a role that is more deeply involved in school board politics than some of its critics think is proper.

In January, Elgart announced that SACS was placing APS on probation.

“There are serious issues that must be dealt with,” Elgart said. He has played a powerful role in the later stages of the Atlanta schools’ crisis.

The district is embroiled in a massive cheating scandal.

The SACS report focused its criticism entirely on the so-called gang-of-five which made a controversial change in leadership on the school board last fall.

Now, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has uncovered an email from last October in which Elgart encouraged El to step aside and restore Lachandra Butler Burks as chairperson.

Burks is a big supporter of Superintendent Beverly Hall. El is not.

Elgart told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that El agreed by phone to step down then backed out. The newspaper reported that El emailed Elgart stating he would not step down.

“I’m just really almost speechless that SACS and Dr. Elgart are orchestrating the removal of Khaatim El,” said State Senator Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta).

Fort, who has been critical of SACS’ role in the school board dispute, but told Belcher that Elgart’s role as documented by the newspaper’s investigation is not what the accrediting agency should be doing.

“I really think that Dr. Elgart has lost any vestige of neutrality or objectivity, and he probably needs to step aside and step out of this investigation,” Fort said.

Elgart emailed Belcher on Friday stating that both El and Burks asked for mediation by SACS and asked him to draft a memo for the board.

Elgart stated that the memo was never sent, and once SACS began its accreditation review, mediation by SACS was off the table.

Elgart’s statement did not address why he proposed that El step aside as board chairman.

The full investigation appears in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

You will read how much money SACS takes in, why critics say education has become a weapon wielded by powerful interests and how one state is considering limiting SACS’ influence.