House passes school board ethics bill

By Greg Gelpi

Every school board should have a code of ethics, and controversy within the Clayton County Board of Education prodded one legislator to make that law.

The Georgia House of Representatives passed House Bill 198 by a vote of 138-32. The bill requires local school boards to adopt a code of ethics, review the code regularly and make any changes to that code during open meetings.

State Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, who served on the Clayton board of education in the early 1990s, said he sponsored the bill because of the past year's antics.

"Basically, some of the problems we've been having in Clayton County was one of the reasons," Barnes said for sponsoring the legislation. "I think it would have caused the board to come to the table and discuss what it is they are there for."

The Clayton school system was placed on probation for micromanaging and breaking its own policies by its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

"I remember the things I fought for (when I was on the school board) were another water cooler for the school and maybe some more lights on the football field," Barnes said.

The bill would help prevent school boards from straying from their mission and purpose and keep them from micromanaging the school system, he said.

Clayton does have a code of ethics, but existing board policy doesn't require a regular review of the code, Jack Warren, county administrative assistant for policies/legislation.

Clayton school board member Barbara Wells said the measure should be taken even further to include penalties for those who violate the code of ethics.

Critics of the bill say it fails in not having any "teeth" to enforce it.

"If you have a rule or something, but you don't have a penalty, then sometimes it's hard to enforce," Wells said. "We need some serious penalties."

She suggested a censure or loss of pay for those breaking the school board's code of ethics.

The Clayton board adopted the policy in 1987 and last reviewed it in 1995.

"It's reviewed at just about every retreat," Warren said. "This will not be that big of a change."

The school board code of ethics can be found on the school system's Web site at www.clayton.k12.ga.us under the policy section.

Mary Ann Mitcham, vice chairwoman of the Henry County Board of Education, said Henry's board doesn't have a formal code of ethics, but does have a set of "ground rules," which serves as ethical guidelines.

"We don't have a code of ethics, but I guess you could call it that," Mitcham said.

She said that the legislation would change little with the Henry school board and criticized the bill.

"You can adopt a code but you must have something behind it to enforce it," Mitcham said. "I would think that just adopting a code of ethics wouldn't be worth the paper it's written on. The only people who have power over board members are those who elected them."

State Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City, said every board he has ever served on has had a formal code of ethics.

It's "simply to hold them accountable to somebody," Dodson, a sponsor of the bill, said. "It's almost like why hasn't this been done before."

The bill is now in the state Senate.