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Decision coming on elections bill

By Justin Reedy

With the Clayton County School board deadlocked into two equal factions, an election that will decide which one gains control is expected to get approval from the federal government in three weeks.

Filing for the ninth seat would then be set and the election would be held in a matter of months.

Most agree this will be one of the most watched and highly contested single-member district race in recent history because of the past six months of in-fighting and wrestling for control of the 50,000-student district.

The measure which passed the Georgia legislature this session and was signed earlier this month by the governor changed the procedure for filling vacancies on the school board.

It put the decision back in the hands of the voters and took it away from the school board.

Federal law requires that any election change in Southern states get "pre-clearance" from the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act to ensure it doesn't discriminate against minority voters.

The new law requires a special election to fill any vacancies on the county school board when more than 180 days remains on the term of office.

The idea for the legislation came up when Sue Ryan, the school board member representing the 8th District, resigned only months after taking office. This left most of the four-year term. Since no local legislation had 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 called 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. But SB 374, which became law before a board member could be appointed to the 8th District seat, will require a special election n tentatively scheduled for Sept. 16 n to fill that school board spot.

Federal approval should come by July 21, according to Jorge Martinez, a spokesman for the Justice Department. But with that election date only two and a half months away, local officials are preparing for the election anyway.

"The way I would think it would work is everyone would proceed as if were going to be approved," said school board attorney Gary Sams. "And I've got no reason to believe it won't be."

Another law dealing with elections in Clayton County to create a Board of Elections and a full-time elections superintendent has also been submitted to the Justice Department for pre-clearance. Officials have 60 days to review the change before ruling on it, but the county will begin preparing for the creation of the elections board before getting pre-clearance.

"I'm going to try and push it forward," said Crandle Bray, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, which will appoint elections board members. "It's critical to get it formed with a special election being held in September."