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Strong: BOE's meeting 'may have been illegal'

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Education had to re-vote on Corrective Superintendent John Thompson's contract on Monday, because Vice chairperson Michelle Strong didn't have the authority to a call a meeting which took place on Saturday.

The approval of Thompson's contract was the only item on the agenda for the meeting held over the weekend. Five board members attended the meeting on Saturday, and the work session on Monday. Both times, the board unanimously approved Thompson's contract, which calls for a salary of $285,000 per year.

Late on April 24, Strong called the meeting which took place on Saturday because Chairman Eddie White had announced his intention to resign. She was under the impression he had already stepped down, but he sent out a statement over the weekend which announced Monday was his final day in office.

"Based on conversations with our legal counsel and the chairman, we were under the impression Mr. White [had] already resigned, but we discovered later on that his resignation did not go into effect until today," Strong said. "Because of that mix-up, the called meeting we held on Saturday may have been illegal."

Strong's admission was one bookend which left residents upset with the board. The other was the board's second-to-last decision of the night - removing a restriction which prohibited legal counsel, Dorsey Hopson, from retaining the services of his old law firm, Greenberg Traurig, LLP, until September 2008.

The school system is looking for a law firm to help the district meet the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' nine mandates for improvement by Sept. 1. The Marietta-based law firm of Brock, Clay, Calhoun, Wilson and Rogers, PC, was helping the school system, but ended its services last week in protest over what it termed "deceptive and unethical behavior" on the part of board members.

The decision to lift the restriction against Greenberg Traurig was enough to cause one person in the audience to exclaim "That's sick!"

Larry O'Keeffe, a father of a Morrow High School student, was one of the audience members who was not pleased with the board's decision to remove the restriction prohibiting Hopson from hiring Greenberg Traurig for supplemental legal work.

"My problem is, if you're going to add and remove restrictions at will, why bother having them," O'Keeffe said.

Hopson said he had no further comment on the matter when he was asked about it after the meeting, but he called a Clayton News Daily reporter about 45 minutes later and said he plans to look at up to 10 law firms from around the state and see which one is the best fit for the school system.

He also said, "I didn't want to give the perception we're going to go with Greenberg Traurig simply because they were mentioned in the meeting. I just can't mention their name when I'm with the board as long that restriction is in place."

Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), believes the fact that Greenberg Traurig was mentioned in the meeting does indicate the firm will be hired by Hopson to replace Brock, Clay, Calhoun, Wilson and Rogers.

"That's a conflict of interest in my opinion," Matthews said. "He used to work for the firm and that's the only firm that was mentioned ... Something doesn't smell right."

While the board angered audience members with the admission that Saturday's called meeting was likely illegal -- and the restriction against Greenberg Traurig being lifted -- the board also got a brief look at the fiscal year 2009 budget.

The new budget is initially expected to be about $417 million, over $140 million less than the $566 million in the 2008 budget. Still, revenues are expected to be about $405 million, $12 million less than the predicted expenditures.

The school system still has to deal with $12 million in unpaid taxes from Delta Air Lines, which is from the 2006 fiscal year. Ramona Thurman, director of budgets and grants, said Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin has begun to collect some of Delta's unpaid taxes from when it went into bankruptcy, but not enough money has been collected to begin distributing the funds to various county entities.

Thurman also said about 75 percent of the new budget is devoted to instruction and will go "directly to our students to improve their education."

Some of the new requested items in the 2009 budget include:

· Additional staff at the district's alternative school, such as two core teachers; a foreign language teacher; a special education-collaborative teacher; a behavioral interventionist; a regular education paraprofessional; an English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher; instructional supplies and security equipment ($600,000 in funds).

· Additional security officers for the Central Administration Complex ($64,566).

· An assistant coordinator of athletics ($109,644).

· A 1.25 percent cost-of-living increase for non-teaching staff members ($2.8 million).

· Funds to open a new elementary school and the district's ninth high school ($1.67 million).

The board's next budget work session will take place on Wednesday, May 6, at 6:30 p.m.