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School board bill picks up steam

By Justin Reedy

A vote by the state House of Representatives on a bill dealing with vacancies on the Clayton County Board of Education could come as early as tomorrow, local legislators say.

The legislation, Senate Bill 374, has already passed the state Senate and received its first reading or introduction, in the House last Thursday on the 38th day of the 40-day legislative session. The legislature convenes again tomorrow and on Thursday before closing out the session for this year, but local lawmakers say the bill will likely pass on one of those two days.

"Hopefully it'll pass Tuesday," said state Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, who co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Valencia Seay, D-College Park. "We got it taken care of (in the Senate). It was kind of slow there with some of the games they were playing in the Senate, but as long as it got done that was the important thing."

The majority of the Clayton County legislative delegation has already signed off on the bill, which would require an immediate special election be held to fill any school board vacancies that occur with at least 180 days left in the term. Current law only calls for terms with more than two years and three months left to be filled with a special election, with shorter terms filled by a board appointment.

Legislators say that if the bill becomes law it would apply to a current vacancy on the board, which opened up when District 8 representative Susan Ryan resigned this year only months into her first term of office. But the law would only apply if the school board hasn't already appointed a new member for the District 8 seat before the law takes effect, lawmakers say.

If the board appoints someone to fill that spot, the appointee would serve until a special election held in November 2004 would put a new board member in office the following January. Citizens and officials have criticized the fact that a non-elected official could serve on the board for about 18 months without having to answer to the public.

"At (a recent) 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."

"This bill is critically important," added state Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, who is also chairwoman of the local delegation. "The citizens have made clear their wishes to vote for the District 8 school board seat."

The school board was set to appoint a new District 8 representative at its meeting last week, but the measure was tabled until a later date. The board drew fire earlier this year when it appointed, by a split vote, new member Carol Kellam, who had moved into her school board district days earlier. Kellam was appointed to fill the un-expired term of board member Mark Armstrong, who resigned late last year.