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Senate approves Clayton ethics legislation

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Georgia Senate approved a bill on Tuesday which establishes a seven-member ethics commission for the embattled Clayton County Board of Education.

Gov. Sonny Perdue will now decide whether he wants to sign the bill into law.

The measure was part of a response to the growing threat of a loss of accreditation for the county's schools. Officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) have said they will take away the district's accreditation, if nine mandates for improvement are not met by Sept. 1.

One of those mandates is a strong ethics code, which includes sanctions for unethical behavior. The bill could help the school system that mandate, which says the district must "enact and commit to an ethics policy that governs the actions and work of the members of the board of education and staff, including appropriate steps when said policy is violated."

"I think it sends a message to SACS that we're serious about addressing the problems facing our school system," said Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro).

Glanton added he believes Perdue will sign the bill into law within a week.

"Every day, or every other day, he comes out with a list of bills which he plans to sign, so I can't say for sure when he'll sign it," Glanton said. "He's pretty good at signing bills, though, especially when it involves local legislation."

If the bill is signed into law, the ethics commission would be established to oversee the board. The commission would have oversight of school board members' behavior and conduct. It would have the power to censure, reprimand, or remove a board member from office.

The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in mid-February, but sat in committee for several weeks. It was finally approved on March 20, and the Senate took it up a week later.

Meanwhile, Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) began to organize efforts in the Senate to ensure the bill's passage.

Glanton said he found out about the Senate passing the bill while he was in the House Chamber, preparing to take a vote on another bill. He received a text message from Seay letting him know about the Senate's decision.

His immediate feeling was a sense of relief.

"This has been a very challenging process," Glanton said. "It's had it's ups and downs ... This is a good thing for Clayton County and for our school system, though."

Sen. Seay could not be reached for comment on Tuesday evening because the Senate was still in session.

In December 2007, Larry O'Keeffe, a father of a Morrow High School student, delivered the signatures of 24 Clayton County residents who signed a petition asking the legislative delegation for a state law that would establish an ethics panel for the school board.

On Tuesday, O'Keeffe sent an e-mail to other members of the community letting them know the Senate had passed the bill and it was on its way to Gov. Perdue's desk. He thanked the various groups which supported the bill, such as the board of commissioners; the board of education; the chamber of commerce; the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, and the Clayton County Education Association.

"This bill is a positive step that will demonstrate the resolve of the citizens of Clayton County to hold future members of the board of education accountable for their actions," said O'Keeffe on Tuesday. "This bill, when enacted, will put in place a method of resolving issues relating to the ethical behavior of our elected school board members without placing the education of our children in jeopardy."

Another person who was excited to hear the bill passed was Clayton Board of Education Chairperson Ericka Davis, who screamed with delight when she learned about the turn of events.

"It was really like the little bill that could," Davis said. "It's a mechanism to protect future boards for years to come. It will hold individual board members accountable for their actions, instead of making the entire group suffer the consequences."