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Judge to Perdue: Remove Clayton BOE members

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

A state administrative judge is recommending that Gov. Sonny Perdue remove four members of the Clayton County Board of Education, joining a chorus of accreditation officials, state board of education members and community leaders who have called the board "dysfunctional."

Michael Malihi, deputy chief judge of the Office of State Administrative Hearings (OSAH), cited numerous violations of the state's Open Meetings act by the board members, such as participating in closed meetings where a reason for an executive session was not announced, and accepting minutes for meetings without attaching affidavits explaining the reasons for the closed sessions.

"The probative evidence shows that the respondents have violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act, have violated the board's Code of Ethics for board members, and have engaged in conduct unbecoming of a board member, and in breach of the public trust," said Malihi in his recommendation to Perdue.

Julie Lewis, the school system's legal counsel, and one of the attorney's for the board members, declined to comment on the decision. The school system will hold a called meeting to conduct an executive session tonight, at 6:30 p.m., at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center, 2530 Mt. Zion Parkway, Jonesboro. The board's monthly public participation meeting will follow at 7 p.m.

Perdue's press office released a statement from the governor on Wednesday night, in which he promised to move quickly on the recommendation, while also ensuring he makes the right decision.

"I am reviewing the findings included in Judge Malihi's ruling," Perdue said. "Given the importance of this issue to Clayton County students and parents, I will announce a decision expeditiously, but only after a thorough analysis of the ruling and all options available."

Five Clayton County residents filed a complaint with Perdue in June, accusing the board members of malfeasance. Four of the residents, or petitioners in OSAH's eyes, are Jonesboro attorneys, while the fifth person is a retired math teacher. Over the last two weeks, Malihi heard nearly 40 hours of testimony from witnesses in the case.

In his recommendation, Malihi also cited occasions in which board members did not implore their colleagues to enforce the board's code of ethics, and berated school system staff, attorneys, other board members and visitors, such as Mark Elgart, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

The judge also listed SACS' recommendation in February to revoke the district's accreditation next week. SACS could reverse that recommendation today, however, when it announces it's final decision on the school system.

In addition to those reasons, Malihi listed other specific reasons for recommending the removal of each board member. Some of his reasons included:

· Michelle Strong (District 1) - In his recommendation, Malihi said Strong is "outspoken" and "confrontational" toward other board members and staff; was "inattentive to the business of the board," and engaged in telephone conversations during two meetings; failed to respond to an ethics complaint filed by former Chairman Eddie White in a timely manner, and had occasional dinners with Metro Association of Classroom Educators (MACE) President John Trotter after board meetings.

· Lois Baines-Hunter (District 2) - The judge told Perdue that Baines-Hunter treated staff and other board members in a confrontational manner; told Elgart that he was "uninvited" to a meeting, and left a training session early, claiming the board had "'trust' issues."

· Yolanda Everett (District 3) - Malihi did not list any other reasons, other than the Open Meetings Act violations, and not urging the board to enforce its code of ethics.

· Sandra Scott (District 9) - Malihi cited testimony that Scott allegedly did not care about the accreditation since her son is no longer a student in Clayton County schools; said she addressed colleagues and staff members "in a belligerent and unprofessional manner;" left a training session on teamwork early, saying "it makes me sick to even have to look at them [other board members.]"; ignored board meeting protocol by initiating discussions about an internet blog during a closed meeting; requested a former high school football coach at Morrow High School to make highlight tapes for her son, who played on the team; boasted that she later got the coach fired, and did not reimburse the school system for a town hall meeting she held at a middle school.

Several of the petitioners said the citizens of county are the true beneficiaries of Malihi's recommendation. Bob Oliver called it a "great day" for the county, the school system and its students. Albert Wallace said the recommendation was a result of the petitioners' "overwhelming" evidence that the board members "mismanaged" the school system.

"We feel like the people of Clayton County are entitled to receive some benefits from this," said Jonesboro attorney George Brown, one of the petitioners. "We did this pro bono, and we did it because we felt so strongly that somebody needed to do something to help the children."

There is the possibility the board could be left with only three members, Alieka Anderson (District 8); Trinia Garrett (District 7), and Michael King (District 4), if Perdue removes the other board members. Strong's and Scott's seats are not up for re-election until 2010, and special elections would need to be held to find their replacements.

Jessie Goree has already been elected to replace Everett in January 2009. Wanda Smith, a Democrat, and Della Ashley, a Republican, will face off in the general election to decide who will replace Baines-Hunter in January.

The board members were planning to appoint someone to fill the remainder of Rod Johnson's unexpired term in District 5, after a Nov. 4 general election contest between Ophelia Burroughs and Diana Nicholson determined who would take the seat, starting in January.

A special election for District 6 is already scheduled for Sept. 16 to determine who will serve the remaining three and a half months of former chairman Eddie White's unexpired term. Mary Baker won the Democratic primary for the District 6 seat -- separate from the special election -- and is not going to face Republican opposition.

She may face an independent challenger in Marcela Bodkin, who is seeking court intervention to get on the November ballot. Baker and Bodkin will also face each other in the special election.

Meanwhile, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Christopher S. Brasher could issue a Writ of Prohibition that would stop the board members from being removed. Oral arguments were heard Monday during a 20-minute hearing. Brasher is expected to issue a decision today, according to his office.

See judge's full ruling on the Clayton News Daily Web site at www.news-daily.com.