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Johnson formally resigns at school board hearing

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Left without legal representation, Rod Johnson decided to step down from the Clayton County Board of Education on Tuesday rather than face a state administrative judge on his own.

Unlike his March 3 resignation announcement, Johnson put his resignation in writing this time. He is the fifth board member to leave this year.

Board Chairperson Michelle Strong, Vice chairperson Sandra Scott, and board members, Lois Baines-Hunter, and Yolanda Everett, remain from the nine-member board that began the year. They, however, are facing an state administrative hearing before a judge who could recommend that Gov. Sonny Perdue remove them from office.

"I am resigning from office at this time," Johnson told State Administrative Judge Michael Malihi on Tuesday, after three hours of pondering his options. Johnson was faced with the reality of having to represent himself in the proceedings, after attorneys for the school system told him they would not represent him, because he had not attended meetings with the attorneys prior to the hearing.

Johnson's resignation came at the start of a two-day administrative hearing that got off to a rocky start in Atlanta. The hearing is designed to determine whether Strong, Scott, Baines-Hunter and Everett committed malfeasance.

In June, Jonesboro attorneys Albert Wallace, Robert Oliver, George Glaze, George Brown, along with retired teacher, Dyane Simmons, sent Perdue a complaint against several present, and former, members of the board. Johnson, Strong, Scott, Baines-Hunter, Everett, Haynes and former board member David Ashe were named in the original complaint. The complaint alleged that the board members repeatedly violated state and federal laws.

The school system is suffering from a "meddlesome board," said attorney Wallace. He said those members need punishment for their actions.

Julie Lewis, general counsel for the school system, who is representing four of the board members, argued no punishment is needed, because the idea that the board is dysfunctional is false.

"A Board of Education doesn't have to always agree," Lewis said. "There isn't a school board that gets along all the time. That is what a board of education is about. It's a group of people from different backgrounds, so they aren't going to always see eye-to-eye."

Johnson told Malihi he learned on Monday that neither Lewis, nor Rodney Moore, another district counsel, would represent him. Johnson said he was told it was because he failed to show for meetings with Lewis and Moore to discuss defense strategies.

Attorneys for the board members also tried on Tuesday morning to get a Fulton County Superior Court Judge to stop the hearing from taking place, because, they argued, the board members were constitutional officers, and therefore the Office Of State Administrative Hearings lacked the ability to recommend the removal of board members.

Lewis, Moore and four of the five board members did not show up at 8:30 a.m., when the hearing began. They were across town at the Fulton County Courthouse, preparing to appear before Superior Court Judge Alford J. Dempsey, Jr., to stop the administrative hearing from taking place. Lewis and Moore filed an emergency writ of prohibition on Friday afternoon after Malihi denied their request to dismiss the case.

Only Johnson appeared before Malihi at the prescribed time.

An hour and a half later, Stefan Ritter, senior assistant attorney general, argued before Judge Dempsey that OSAH was only a fact-finding body, and not capable of removing board members by itself. Ritter also argued that the board members' legal representative did not file their writ five days before the hearing began, as prescribed by law.

Dempsey decided he lacked jurisdiction over the case and moved it back to Malihi's courtroom.

The administrative hearing resumed at 11:30 a.m. When Lewis and Moore arrived, Malihi berated them for not appearing earlier. "The order says you were supposed to appear at 8:30 a.m.," said Malihi, in a stern voice. "Your absence was disrespectful to the people who showed up on time. It was disrespectful to opposing council, and it was disrespectful to this court. I will sanction you, but I haven't decided how yet."

Witnesses who appeared in court on Tuesday included Morrow High School Athletic Director Jay Livingston, former Morrow Head Football Coach Kennedy Holt; Southern Association of Colleges and Schools President Mark Elgart; SACS General Counsel Ken Bergman; State Board of Education members, James Bostic and Brad Bryant, and former school system special attorney, Glenn Brock.

Livingston testified that he was at a meeting to discuss lay coaches, and school board member Scott expressed a hatred for Morrow High School, and a desire to get all of its coaches fired. Livingston also testified Scott boasted about having Holt fired.

Holt testified that during his two years as head coach at Morrow, and two years prior as an assistant football coach, he and Scott found themselves at odds. Holt said Scott never liked him as the head football coach, and was micromanaging him before, and after, she was elected to the school board.

"I did everything I could to appease her, because I know her," said Holt. "I eventually had to move practices to the back of the field, because she would stand at the front of the field and offer criticism ... During games, she would curse out the entire coaching staff, and it got to the point where I wouldn't bring the team back out after half-time until someone talked her down."

Holt also testified he had to stop Scott from attacking another member of the Morrow High School Football Booster Club with a tire iron following a booster club meeting.

Elgart spent the largest amount of time testifying, answering questions for three hours. He offered testimony about his agency's report on the school system, and his observations about individual board members.

Elgart said the friction between the Metro Association of Classroom Educators and the Clayton County Education Association was causing some of the problems on the board. Elgart said seven board members belong to one teacher's group or the other, and when they were divided on an issue, they voted based on alliances with those groups.

"Their decisions should be guided [instead] by their fiduciary responsibility to govern the school system," Elgart said.

The SACS leader spent more than two hours under cross examination by Moore. Moore asked Elgart about each of the board members at the center of the hearing, but the accreditation chief's harshest words dealt with Scott.

"Regardless of how staff members made recommendations, Mrs. Scott was belligerent towards those recommendations, and she would dismiss them as if they did not have merit," Elgart said.

The hearing will continue today, at 8:30 a.m., at the OSAH office, 230 Peachtree St., Atlanta. Among the remaining witnesses are Strong, Scott, Baines-Hunter, Everett, former Board Chairperson White, School System Spokesman Charles White, school board (District 6) candidate Mary Baker, and Larry O'Keeffe, president of the Morrow High School Council.

Wallace said board members need to receive some form of punishment for their actions. "They all should have been sent to the principal's office," he said.