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BOE Chair: 'I did not knowingly' violate new ethics law

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Education will have to re-vote on a cost of living adjustment and pay increase for one school system employee included in the 2009 budget, because board Chairperson Michelle Strong violated the board's new ethics law when she voted for the financial plan.

The lone employee in question is a relative of Strong. House Bill 1302, which was signed into law in May by Gov. Sonny Perdue, forbids members of the Clayton County Board of Education from participating in a vote which would "create a direct, or indirect monetary benefit" to them.

"I was under the impression that, since my relative was already an employee, that it was appropriate to vote for the cost-of-living adjustment for all employees because it was not a raise or a promotion," explained Strong.

"I did not knowingly vote in a manner contrary to House Bill 1302 when I voted to approve the $600 million-plus budget," said Strong in a press release.

The chairperson said it was an accident on Wednesday, and has called on the board to re-vote on her relative during the July 14 business meeting.

Strong would not say what her relative does for the school system, or whether the family member is a male or female.

Ethics has become a central issue for the board since the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) began investigating alleged unethical behavior by board members in January. House Bill 1302 was drafted, approved, and signed into law in response the SACS investigation. The accrediting agency will revoke the school system's accreditation on Sept. 1, if nine mandates for improvement are not met. Ethical conduct is one mandate.

Specifically, SACS urged the board to "enact and commit to an ethics policy that governs the actions and work of the members of the board of education and staff including appropriate steps when said policy is violated."

The school system has been working to address all of SACS' mandates since the agency released its report on the school system in February. District leaders feel they have completed almost all of the work needed to retain the system's accreditation, but Strong's vote on the budget left them feeling a little skittish.

"I am doing this in an effort to ensure that SACS cannot use this in any way to withhold our accreditation," Strong said.

Julie Lewis, the school system's general counsel, said the board is not going to re-vote on the entire budget, since the only conflict deals with Strong's relative. Under state law, the board had to approve the new budget by June 30, since the new fiscal year began the next day.

Strong will call on the board to vote on her relative's cost-of-living adjustment and step increase during the next business meeting, and then she will recuse herself from the vote.

"Mrs. Strong's relative will not receive the cost-of-living adjustment and step increase until the board takes a vote on this person," Lewis said.