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BOE faces critical, back-to-back probes this week

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Five members of the Clayton County Board of Education will be fighting for their political lives, and the school system's accreditation this week.

Board members Michelle Strong, Sandra Scott, Lois Baines-Hunter, Yolanda Everett and Rod Johnson face possible removal from their posts.

The five board members are the subject of an administrative hearing before Judge Michael Malihi on Tuesday, at 8:30 a.m., at the Office of State Administrative Hearings (OSAH), 230 Peachtree St., Suite 850, in Atlanta. It will continue on Wednesday. If Judge Malihi finds the members are guilty of malfeasance, Gov. Sonny Perdue has the option of removing them from office.

Regardless of that decision, on Thursday and Friday, those board members, along with new board members, Alieka Anderson and Trinia Garrett, will face questions from a review team of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

SACS officials are sending a nine-member team to the district to see if the system has met its mandates for improvement, or if Clayton County Schools will lose its accreditation on Sept. 1.

"Next week is a very big week for CCPS," said Julie Lewis, the school system's legal counsel. "Our Board and CCPS Staff have been working very hard to prepare for both events."

The administrative hearing stems from a complaint filed with the governor's office on June 23, by Dyane Simmons, a retired educator, and Jonesboro attorneys, Albert Wallace, Robert Oliver, George Glaze and George Brown. On July 3, the governor sent the complaint to OSAH, requesting a hearing.

Rodney Moore, who works for the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, LLP, was added on July 14 as an attorney to help represent school board members during the administrative hearing. Moore also led an investigation of a controversial land deal for the board in 2007.

Jennifer Jones, a staff attorney who will work with Malihi on the case, said school board attorneys, who also will represent the five board members, filed a motion to dismiss the case on Aug. 7. Malihi had not ruled on the motion before the weekend, Jones said. The school board attorneys based their motion on the argument that OSAH lacks "subject matter jurisdiction."

"The fact that the Clayton County School Board is not subject to O.C.G.A. 45-10-1, et seq. is buttressed by the existence of a separate statutory process for the removal of [the] board," Moore said in the motion. "Specifically, the removal of school board members may only be accomplished by recall."

Judge Malihi could make a decision in the case as soon as a couple of days after the hearing ends, said Jennifer Martin, Malihi's calendar clerk.

Wallace, the spokesman for the group trying to get the board members removed from office, said Friday he was confident in his group's chances of successfully proving their case. Since attorneys make up four-fifths of the group, they will represent themselves at the hearing.

"Have you ever shot fish in a barrel?" asked Wallace. "We've got all the evidence we could possibly need, and then some. The only thing we have to worry about is over-trying the case."

Legal counsel, Lewis, and special attorney, Richard Schwartz, sent the district's 2,300-page response to SACS' concerns to the organization on July 31.

The accreditation response contained evidence, such as board minutes, audits, residency affidavits, press releases, meeting agendas, and proof of board training sessions. It also contained letters of support from several community members.

Later in the week, on Thursday, a review team will look at the district's response, and conduct interviews with board members, school board candidates, board members-elect, district officials, school administrators, staff members and community members.

The team will consult with SACS officials, and a decision will be made about the district's accreditation. The school system could lose its accreditation; be put on probation, or it could retain its full accreditation.

District officials are aiming for the third option, and have said they are confident in their chances for success.