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Perdue gives Clayton HOPE, ethics law

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Gov. Sonny Perdue signed two pieces of legislation into law on Wednesday that affect Clayton County schools.

One establishes an ethics commission for the embattled school board, and the other allows students to continue qualifying for HOPE scholarships, even if the district loses its accreditation in September.

The school system is facing an accreditation crisis because of unethical behavior emanating from a "dysfunctional" school board, according to officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS has given the district nine mandates to meet by Sept. 1, or a loss of accreditation will occur.

District and state officials now believe Clayton County schools will lose accreditation because of continued governance issues. This prompted Perdue to sign both bills into law, but he was particularly eager to sign the legislation concerning the HOPE scholarships.

"It is our hope that Clayton County students never have to take advantage of this provision, but I am signing it into law to ensure that the scholarship remains available to eligible students," said Perdue in a statement.

Because of the new law, Clayton County students, who graduate in 2009 and 2010, will still be eligible for HOPE scholarships, since their school system will have been accredited within two years of their graduation..

The ethics law bolsters the board of education's mandate for tougher ethics policies. The board has enacted policy changes to strengthen its own ethics code.

Supporters of the ethics law say it provides a partial local solution to the accreditation crisis. They also say the establishment of the ethics commission puts an entity between the board and SACS to deal with unethical behavior. SACS was alerted to the unethical behavior of the current board when members began filing complaints against each other with the accrediting agency.

Signing the bills into law is one step in a series of actions Perdue has taken to help the school system retain its accreditation. It means the governor has helped the school system complete two mandates issued by SACS officials in February. The governor's assistance will result in the completion of another mandate in mid-summer. Perdue also instructed the state's office on student achievement to audit attendance records. The audit is expected to be completed in June or July. It will satisfy the mandate calling for an audit of attendance records from a handful of Clayton County schools, which may have falsified records to avoid punitive actions.

Secretary of State Karen Handel was asked to investigate the election of each board member, to make sure they complied with state laws. An investigator from Handel's office looked at the residencies of board members, and in April, determined every board member lived in his or her respective district. It satisfies a mandate to verify the validity of each board member's election.

Another step Perdue took was to appoint state board of education members James Bostic and Brad Bryant as special liaisons between his office and the Clayton County board of education.

The last step seemed to be falling apart on Wednesday, however. Bostic and Bryant asked the governor to let them stop working with the six remaining board members, because the board is too "dysfunctional." The liaisons asked Perdue to, instead, let them deal directly with Corrective Superintendent John Thompson. The governor granted their request.

In a statement, Perdue said the liaisons "had no agenda" when they were sent to work with the board, except the "best interests of the students of Clayton County.

"It is unfortunate that the board members have treated the state's offer of support as an intrusion, rather than the assistance it was intended to be," Perdue said.