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Clayton BOE decides members did not violate ethics policy

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Education decided Monday during a work session not to punish board members Sandra Scott and David Ashe for alleged unethical actions they took in April.

Scott was accused of unethical behavior because she distributed copies -- during an April 23 executive session -- of allegations of an inappropriate relationship between former Chairman Eddie White and a school system employee. On May 13, Ashe asked his colleagues to sanction him for verbally threatening a reporter during an April 26 called meeting.

Board Chairperson Michelle Strong asked school system attorney Julie Lewis and special attorney Richard Schwartz to review the actions of both Ashe and Scott from an independent, legal perspective. The attorneys determined neither board member committed a violation of the board's ethics policy.

"We didn't have anything in writing against Mr. Ashe," Lewis said. "With Mrs. Scott, we each looked at that situation individually and both of us came to the conclusion that she did not violate the ethics policy ... The information she distributed was already in the public domain. She got it from the blog on the AJC [Atlanta Journal-Constitution] web site. It was a reputable web site. It wasn't on some nefarious sex chat site."

The work session on Monday was the first time in a month and a half the board publicly discussed the issue of sanctions for Scott and Ashe.

The board first addressed the issue on May 13, but the members decided to table discussions about the alleged violations until the May 27 work session. However, the work session and the June 2 business meeting, came and went without the issue coming up. Corrective Superintendent John Thompson has since taken blame for the delay, claiming he forgot to put it on the agenda for the previous meetings.

In addition to filing his complaint against Scott with Chairperson Michelle Strong, former board member White forwarded copies to Clayton County District Attorney Jewel Scott and the State Ethics Commission. A Clayton County grand jury is currently looking into the complaint as part of its investigation into whether board members have committed malfeasance, which is a misdemeanor.

Malfeasance is when an elected official is found to not be performing his or her duties, or is found to be incompetent. If the official is convicted of the charge, he or she must be removed from office, according to state law.

Lewis said she has not been contacted by the grand jury, or officials from the State Ethics Commission about White's complaint. She added she has not yet discussed her and Schwartz's conclusion with the former board chairman.

There is very little the board could have done to sanction Ashe, even if Lewis and Schwartz determined his actions violated the board's ethics policy. Earlier in the evening, Ashe announced he would resign from office on July 16, and asked his colleagues to appoint the winner of the July 15 District 7 primary contest to fill the remainder of his term. Denese Sampson and Trinia Garrett are running for the soon-to-be-vacant seat.

The board also held a called meeting before the work session, in which members voted 4-0-1 in favor of approving the $613.7 million budget for the 2008-09 school year. Scott abstained from the vote, and board member Rod Johnson did not attend the meeting.

The budget was slightly larger than the $612 million previously reported because the district added $1 million for fuel, and about $700,000 for administrative salaries.

Scott voiced some concerns about band and orchestra programs for elementary and middle schools, as well as salaries for paraprofessionals who work on school buses, but most of what she said could not be understood through the sound system. Scott left as soon as the work session ended.

Board member Lois Baines-Hunter expressed her own concerns that paraprofessional positions were being cut from the budget, but her comments left confused looks on the faces of administrators and staff. "No parapros have been removed," said Corrective Superintendent John Thompson. "They've been moved around to other areas of the budget."

Under state law, Monday was the last day the board had to vote on the budget. The new budget goes into effect today, and it includes the $419 million General Fund, which is supported through tax revenue.