By Curt Yeomans
The 16 members of the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council worked together in May to come up with three questions to ask each board of education candidate, but the students knew there was one topic they wanted to hear discussed by the people vying to be the next leaders of the school system -- ETHICS.
The issue of ethics has been at the forefront in discussions about the school board since the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) began investigating allegations that board members were engaging in micromanagement, misuse of district funds and unethical behavior.
SACS officials deemed the problem was serious enough in February that they set a Sept. 1 deadline for improvement, or the school system will lose its accreditation.
Twenty-five school board candidates participated in a forum hosted by the council Tuesday at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center. Each candidate was asked what he or she would do if he or she found out a colleague was violating the board's ethics policy.
"Primarily we wanted to get to the center of why we're dealing with a potential loss of our accreditation, and that is the issue of the school board's ethics," said Xavier Ross, a 2008 graduate of Riverdale High School and a member of the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council. "We wanted to know how the candidates viewed the topic."
The candidates who participated in the forum included: (District 2) Andre Glover, Lindsey McDaniel, III, Wanda Smith, Della Ashley; (District 3) Blondie Perry-Christian, Charles Davis, Jessie Goree; Tammie Hardy, Marty Holder, Sr.; (District 5) Ophelia Burroughs, Robert Green, Phyllis Moore, Trena Morris, Jennifer Talley, Diana Nicholson; (District 6) Mary Baker, Glenn Dowell, William Hill, Vernetta Reeves, James Stanley, Mabel Swaby; (District 7) Denese Sampson; (District 8) Ed Rigdon and Alieka Anderson.
Marcela Bodkin, an independent who is still collecting signatures to get on the ballot as a District 6 candidate, also participated in the forum.
The first question for each candidate was a simple, "Who are you and why are you running for a school board seat?" The other questions dealt with how to handle an unethical colleague, and what qualities should a good school board member have.
The answers ranged from condemnation for current school board members, to hope that the new ones would learn from the actions of their predecessors.
"The board did not follow its existing policy, and that's one of the reasons why we're in the situation we find ourselves in," said District 5 candidate Green. "Also, no one on the board would pull the trigger and push for sanctions against their colleagues. Why is that? There were probably so many violations that they didn't want to deal with it."
Some candidates, such as Christian-Perry, Dowell, Reeves and Baker, brought up House Bill 1302, which established a new code of ethics specifically for the Clayton school board and created an ethics panel to oversee the board. Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the bill into law last month, and it will go into effect in July.
Christian-Perry and Baker said they saw it as a level of reassurance in case the board needed to be controlled. "I hope we never have to use it, but I got tired of, time and again, seeing people go up before board members to address them, only to be ignored," said Baker, who attends board meetings on a regular basis.
However, Dowell and Reeves were not sure the new legislation would be an end-all, be-all solution to the board's ethics problems.
"Unfortunately, even the legislation we have will not be enough if the board members are not inclined to care about it," Dowell said. "We should take it a step further and work with the [Clayton County] legislative delegation to get the governor to agree to step in when board members are not inclined to follow their own policies, or punish each other for violations of those policies.
"He should either remove them from office or get involved in some other manner."
Ross said he was pleased with how the forum went, but he wished current board members had shown up. He saw one board member, Sandra Scott, at the forum, but she walked out mid-way through the event.
Two incumbents running for re-election, David Ashe (District 7) and Lois Baines-Hunter (District 2) did not attend the forum.
"I was shocked more board members didn't show up," Ross said. "They are going to have to work with some of these people starting next year. You'd think they would want to be here to find out about their future colleagues."