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No indictments planned

By Justin Reedy and Ed Brock

The Clayton County Grand Jury won't issue any indictments as a result of its investigation into the county Board of Education, according to a copy of its final report obtained by the News Daily.

But it did point out some wrongdoing by the board, make several recommendations for board members and encouraged the next term's grand jury to monitor the board's actions.

The board alluded to the fact that if positive changes aren't made some board members should resign or be replaced by the voters.

The report, which was given to school board members at last Thursday's meeting during an executive session, will be presented by the grand jury this Wednesday to Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield. The grand jury had been investigating the school board's actions surrounding the firing of then-Superintendent Dan Colwell in January and other board actions since then.

In its report the grand jury admonished the board for having "communications problems" between members, and urged them to work past those problems.

"If such problems persist, it will endanger community support that is critical to the success of students and schools," the report said. "Communications and cooperation among the members of the Board are essential if they are to provide the leadership that is essential to meeting the educational needs of the children of Clayton County."

School board officials are "trustees and servants of the people," the grand jury said, and are "obligated to act in accordance with the best interests" of the county school system and its students.

"If anyone holding public office finds that they cannot, for whatever reason, comply with the standards of conduct which the law and the public demands, it is incumbent on them to consider whether or not they should continue in office," the report said. If a public officials fails to carry out his or her duties to those standards, the grand jury said, "it is the right, indeed the obligation, of the citizens of this county to make a change."

In addition to asking the board members to re-examine their roles on the board and make sure they fulfill the standards of elected office, the grand jury recommended that the board "widely advertise" the superintendent's position and "allow sufficient time for qualified applicants to apply." And if possible, the report said, "no changes in senior administrative personnel should be made" before a superintendent is appointed.

The school board's agenda didn't include any indication that the board would consider taking action on the superintendent's position, the grand jury found, and board records indicate that there was no discussion of the action before members voted on Colwell's firing. After Colwell filed suit against the board, the school system had to buy out his contract at a cost of $232,000 "as a result" of the board's actions, the report states.

The school board broke its own policy when it appointed Carol Kellam to fill the spot of former board member Mark Armstrong in representing the 7th District of the county, the grand jury said. Kellam moved into her district only four days prior to being appointed.

The school board vacancy wasn't advertised and no public comment on the position was solicited, the report said, nor did the board put on the agenda that it was going to appoint a board member or vote to change its policy for such appointments.

The board's actions have also threatened the school system's accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the grand jury found, which "would be devastating both to the lives of our children and to this county." The board members should work together to try and respond to the concerns of the SACS inquiry, the report said.

The school board should re-institute its former policy of videotaping board meetings, the grand jury found, and either simulcast or broadcast afterwards the meetings on the local public access television channel. The policy of videotaping meetings and making them available to the public was discontinued in January.

When school board members received a copy of the grand jury's report last week from board attorney Gary Sams, members said, the board agreed not to release the report until it decided as a board how to respond. But board members Nedra Ware, Carol Kellam and Connie Kitchens discussed the report with a local television station on Monday, upsetting other board members.

"It's their right as individuals to do that," said board member Barbara Wells. "But I would think they would have let us know."

The release of the report made board member Ericka Davis sad, she said, and last week she urged the board not to respond to the report.

"My grandmother always said a hit dog hollers," Davis said. "If you're not hit, don't holler."

But Kitchens said that some members of the board who she would not identify and she would give the grand jury a 60-page response to the report.

"That will explain how we feel ? it will state our position," Kitchens said, declining further comment.

Davis said she was relieved that there were no indictments forthcoming and the board "hopefully ? will be following our own policies a little more closely" and that those policies may have to be updated.

"It's a recommendation but it's sensible," Davis said about the report. "It's what we should be doing anyway without them having to tell us to."

There are two wills public officials should follow, Davis said, the will of God and the will of the people. She thinks that the board has learned that it must pay more attention to the will of the people.

At the same time she is afraid that board members will seek to appoint a replacement for former board member Sue Ryan before Gov. Sonny Perdue can sign into effect a new law requiring that a special election be held to replace board members.

"I think that if they do that they will be going back on what they said they were going to do, which is to let the people have a voice," Davis said.

Though the grand jury didn't mention any indictments of board members in its report, it did recommend that the next grand jury, which will convene in May, continue to monitor the board's actions.

"I welcome that," Wells said of any future grand jury inquiries.

Wells was pleased with the grand jury's report since it pointed out what the board had done wrong and made recommendations on future action.

"I don't think any criminal laws were broken," Wells said. "But I think some board policies were broken."