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Legislation drafted for BOE ethics board

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) describes the current investigation of the Clayton County Board of Education by the Southern Association of Colleges (SACS) as a sign the board is in "dire straights."

The process of drafting legislature creating an ethics commission as a watchdog over the board began this week. At least four members of the Clayton County legislative delegation in the Georgia General Assembly, including Seay, are already in favor of the legislation.

"Anytime we start talking about the loss of accreditation, it's a concern," said Seay, who was a member of the board of education from 1994 to 2000. "The [proposed] legislation would have some teeth, so something can be done when board members start acting outside of their elected responsibilities."

SACS investigators are looking into allegations of micromanagement, unethical behavior and misuse of district funds for the second time in five years. A SACS investigative team will visit the school system on Wednesday and Thursday. An attorney for the board recently told its members to expect probation, but SACS could take away the district's accreditation instead.

General Assembly rules state that the majority of representatives and senators from a delegation have to support proposed legislation in order to get it to proceed through the law-making process. For the Clayton County delegation, that means four representatives and both senators have to support the legislation creating an ethics commission for the board of education.

The theory among legislators, community members, and members of the Clayton County Board of Education is that an ethics commission would hand out sanctions to misbehaving board members, so SACS won't have to become involved in the future. The legislation would be based on a 2003 law, which created an ethics commission for the Atlanta School System's board of education.

The Clayton County Board of Education passed a resolution on Jan. 9, asking the delegation to create the legislation. "Even if SACS says no violations occurred, accountability is appropriate at anytime," said Ericka Davis, the board's chairperson, on Jan. 9. "This is about making sure there is accountability for the actions of the board."

On Monday, CCEA's board of directors voted unanimously to support the legislative effort as well. "It [the legislation effort] is the best solution I've heard for the long range," said Sid Chapman, the president of the Clayton County Education Association.

Larry O'Keeffe, the father of a Morrow High School student, is cautiously optimistic about the legislation's chances of getting passed by both chambers of the General Assembly, and then signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue. In December, O'Keeffe sent a letter to the delegation, on the behalf of 24 other Clayton residents, asking for the legislation.

"This will be a big help to the school system," he said. "This puts something between the board and SACS. In the future, we should not have another SACS investigation for ethics violations [if an ethics commission exists]."

O'Keeffe was also in attendance at a Jan. 10 meeting with Seay and Reps. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro), Wade Starr (D-Fayetteville) and Celeste Johnson (D-Jonesboro), and officials from the Clayton County Education Association, where the SACS investigation was discussed.

Starr, who supports the legislation, said he sees institutional control as SACS' main issue with the board. Starr also said it wouldn't hurt the school system to have the legislature find ways to help the board police itself.

"They could benefit from legislative support to give them the tools to more effectively govern themselves," he said. "Our school system is our most important economic development institution, to the extent that, when it is in duress, the impact goes far beyond the school system. It affects the community as a whole."

Glanton took the board's resolution to the House of Representative's legislative counsel on Monday. The counsel writes legislation for members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, to make sure the bill conforms to state statutes and codes. The legislative counsel could be done writing a first draft of the bill as early as today, O'Keeffe said.

O'Keeffe and Seay both said Glanton and Johnson are also in support of the legislation, but they were not sure about the rest of the nine-member delegation.

O'Keeffe is still urging the community to contact the other members of the delegation, including Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro), and Reps. Darryl Jordan (D-Riverdale), Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), Joe Heckstall (D-East Point) and Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta), and encourage them to support the legislation as well.