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Legislators reluctant to intervene during SACS probe

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Members of Clayton County's legislative delegation to the Georgia General Assembly are cautiously looking at the Clayton County Board of Education's second investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in five years, while considering a request for legislation that would govern the board's actions.

SACS officials are expected to conduct an on-site investigation of the school system in two weeks. The investigation will focus on allegations of micromanagement and/or misuse of district funds by members of the board. The SACS team could recommend that the accrediting agency do nothing, put the school system on probation, or take away the district's accreditation.

A group of 24 Clayton County residents sent a letter to the nine legislators who represent the county in mid-December, asking for new legislation setting out ethical guidelines for school board members.

The legislators aren't ready to act before SACS officials conduct their investigation, though.

"Before people make judgments, they should have the proper information," said Rep. Darryl Jordan (D-Riverdale), the chairman of the legislative delegation. "All I know about the situation, right now, is what I've seen and heard in the news. It's important to see what SACS comes up with during it's investigation."

The delegation includes Jordan and representatives Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro), Joe Heckstall (D-East Point), Celeste Johnson (D-Jonesboro), Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta), and Wade Starr (D-Fayetteville), as well as senators Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) and Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale).

The residents are basing their request on a 2003 state law, which was created to do the same thing for the Atlanta Board of Education. The 2003 law established a seven-member ethics commission to investigate complaints, made by board members, of alleged ethics violations by other board members.

"You've got several groups who want to throw the [board] out, but that's not practical, it's not going to happen, and it won't solve the underlying problem," said Larry O'Keeffe, a Rex resident who sent the letter on behalf of community residents. "We're seeking a permanent, long-term solution, so SACS doesn't have to get involved whenever there is a problem."

Jordan, and his fellow legislators, are willing to sit down with board members, and Dr. Mark Elgart, the president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, and discuss ways to find a permanent solution to the board's alleged problems.

Jordan said that includes getting legislation passed that governs ethics for the Clayton County Board of Education. "As elected officials, they should do what's in the best interest of the people they represent, and not themselves," Jordan said.

In a statement, Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) said he has received requests for legislation that would police the board from "several other groups." He also said he can't remember going somewhere in the last month without having a SACS-related conversation with his constituents.

He is hopeful the board members can fix the situation, without legislative help, by amending their ethics policy to include enforcement measures, which would "forestall any repeat of the current situation."

"I believe the above suggested proactive [action] by our school board would send a message loud and clear to SACS, and all concerned, of their professional commitment to our children, public schools and our community. Actions that, if not completely precluding anticipated actions by SACS, at the very least, minimizing the impact of those actions," Glanton continued.

Elgart supports the General Assembly passing a law dealing with the board's ethics, but he wasn't sure legislation would make an impact on what SACS does with the Clayton County school system this time around.

"Clearly, they are already violating their own [ethics] policy," Elgart said. "Ethics is very important to the complaints we've received. Ethics speaks to the behavior of the board. The behavior of individuals is critical. Ethics is an important part of how a person behaves."

Seay, who was a member of the board from 1994 until 2000, said she is familiar with the 2003 legislation pertaining to the Atlanta Board of Education. She declined to comment on what impact similar legislation would have on Clayton County's board, though, because she had not seen O'Keeffe's letter, as of Wednesday.

Seay would like to see the members of the Clayton County legislative delegation sit down and discuss the SACS issue, but she isn't happy to see the board under investigation by SACS again.

"Education is everything," Seay said. "It is the key to freedom, and anytime the education of the children is jeopardized, it's a concern to me."

Ericka Davis, the board's chairperson, said the board is considering making changes to it's existing ethics policy. She added that the power to create a policy that has strong enforcement procedures would have to come from the General Assembly, though.

"Ethics policies have no real bite, without strong sanctions to enforce adherence to those policies," Davis said. "That will require legislation to change our charter to do it."