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Time short for board vacancy bill

By Justin Reedy

A bill introduced this week in the state legislature would require any vacancies on the Clayton County Board of Education with more than 180 days left in the term be filled by a special election.

But lawmakers are unsure both whether the measure could be passed by the end of the General Assembly's session next week and if it will become law before a current vacancy on the board is filled.

The idea for the legislation came up when Susan Ryan, the school board member representing the 8th District of Clayton County, resigned only months after taking office, leaving most of the four-year term left for that seat. Since no local legislation has been drafted regarding such a vacancy, the generic state law applies.

State law calls for a special election if more than two years and three months are left in the term, but that election is held at the same time as the next general election. That means in the November 2004 election, a person would be elected to fill the two years left on the District 8 post, replacing the person appointed by the board to serve in the interim.

Residents and local legislators were disappointed to hear that the state law calls for an appointee n as opposed to a duly elected board member n to serve for nearly two years on the board before being replaced.

A similar public outcry occurred when board member Mark Armstrong resigned his seat last year, leaving about two years in his term. That board seat was later filled by appointee Carol Kellam, since the vacancy occurred with less than two years and three months left in the term.

Those two situations have spurred local lawmakers into drafting a bill calling for any school board vacancies that occur with more than 180 days left in the term to be filled with a special election. The bill would also require the election to be held shortly after the vacancy opens, rather than in coordination with the next scheduled general election.

State Sens. Valencia Seay, D-College Park, and Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, introduced Senate Bill 374 this week. The bill has since moved into the committee handling local government operations, which must approve it before it can go before the full Senate.

"At the NAACP educational forum, people wanted to know why they couldn't vote on (the District 8 post), why the member would be appointed (for the next 18 months)," said Seay. "That's what we want to do, is allow the people to vote to fill that un-expired term."

But state Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City, is worried that with the Senate struggling with political gridlock the House won't get to vote on the bill.

"It's very doubtful it'll get approved this year," Dodson said. "The Senate isn't working on local legislation. They're dragging their feet over there. Something could happen, but I really doubt it."

With Seay missing some of the legislative session due to an illness, that leaves Starr as the only senator from Clayton County who can lobby for the bill to get through committee. But Starr, a longtime state senator, has been able to get some local legislation approved despite the problems seen in the Senate, and he's optimistic about this bill.

"I've been pretty successful with other local legislation, and I believe I can get hers out, too," Starr said.

Like Seay, the experienced legislator has been closely following the school board controversy. Starr is well aware that legislators are in a footrace with the board if lawmakers want voters to choose a new District 8 board member this year instead of nearly 1 ? years from now.

The school board has put the appointment on its crowded agenda for Monday night.

"But even if we don't get this done in time to apply to that vacancy, this will be a good policy for any future vacancies," Starr said.

District 8 of the school board is in northeastern Clayton County, and includes parts of Morrow, Forest Park, Lake City and Conley. It is bordered on the west by Ga. Highway 54 and partially bordered on the east by Ga. Highway 42, and extends from the DeKalb County line in the north to the intersection of Rock Creek Drive and Fielder Road in the south.