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Grand jury looking at school board members

By Daniel Silliman and Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

dsilliman@news-daily.com

A Clayton County grand jury is moving forward with an inquiry which could result in the indictment of school board members on criminal charges of delinquency.

The grand jury issued a subpoena to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for all documents pertaining to the accrediting agency's investigation of the Clayton County Board of Education, according to John Turner, chief executive assistant with the District Attorney's Office. It could begin reviewing the documents as soon as Wednesday.

"One of the main focuses is going to be, have they been derelict in their duty," Turner said.

Charles White, school district spokesman, declined to comment. Several school board members did not return calls seeking comments.

The SACS report found that Clayton County Board of Education members engaged in micromangement, unethical behavior and the misuse of district funds. The board was described, by SACS, as "dysfunctional."

SACS has recommended the revocation of the 52,805-student school system's accreditation and has given the board until Sept. 1 to meet nine mandates, including the establishment of "a governing board that is capable of fulfilling its roles and responsibilities."

A Clayton County grand jury has looked into this school board before, investigating a $18 million land deal. After that inquiry, the grand jurors passed down a presentment calling the board "poor stewards" of the taxpayers' money.

Todd Naugle, senior assistant district attorney, said there are, at this point, no allegations the board did anything criminal, but the collection and review of SACS documents is the first step in a process that could result in formal charges of malfeasance in office. If the grand jury finds an elected official is not performing the mandated duties or is incompetent, the grand jury can indict a person on a misdemeanor charge.

If convicted of the misdemeanor, the penalty for such an official is removal from office, according to state law.

"We're a long way from that," Naugle said. "If you read the SACS report, it's not very flattering, but at this point, to say anything illegal took place is only a theory."

Many citizens and special interest groups have lobbied and pushed for the removal of elected officials from the school board, since the SACS report was released a month and a half ago.

Since then, one member has been forced off the board because a police investigation found he lived outside the county; two have said they will resign on June 15, after the budget is adopted, and one has said he will resign, but won't give a date.

The grand jury has the unique ability to force officials off the board through criminal prosecution. Turner described it as a "full-court press."

Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell cautioned against the criminal proceeding, saying it is a "long and arduous process," which should only be used if the civil and administrative methods of straightening things out have failed.

Under Bell's direction, the police department is currently investigating the residency of all the board members. When completed, members found to live outside their district could face possible criminal charges.