By Curt Yeomans
Officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) had only one piece of advice for Clayton County Public Schools when the district informed the accrediting agency of a possible conflict of interest by school board member Michael King -- put ethics first.
The school system contacted SACS in mid-September, after district General Counsel Julie Lewis discovered King was representing Lakeetra Mason, a former teacher, in a wrongful termination lawsuit against the school system. That violated the board's ethics policy, which bars board members from representing someone in any legal action against the district.
"It's important for Clayton County to follow it's ethics policy," said SACS Spokesperson Jennifer Oliver. "We're not here to pass judgment. Our advice to the school system was that it should deal with this matter in whatever manner they felt was important, but they should be mindful of their ethics policy at the same time."
The school board will vote on a resolution of censure against King on Oct. 6, for continuing as Mason's attorney after he was sworn in as a board member in August. King also did not disclose his involvement in the case until after Lewis had already found out about it.
Showing a commitment to ethics is one of eight mandates the school system must meet to regain its accreditation, which was revoked last month, mainly because of a dysfunctional school board.
Lewis said many of the mandates for regaining accreditation are tied to the first requirement -- establishing a fully functioning school board. Examples she gave of other mandates following the establishment of a fully functioning board include: enacting, and following a strong ethics code, along with reviewing and following school board policies.
"If the board is able to police itself in this issue, it will be able to show it is on its way to meeting that first mandate," said Lewis.
When board members were given ethics affidavits to sign on Sept. 22, swearing they did not have a conflict of interest, King drew a line through the word "not." On Wednesday, he said that was his way of letting the district know about his involvement in the case.
King has repeatedly said he is Mason's attorney in name only, and did not file any documents in the case after he was sworn in on Aug. 25. He also claims he told Mason about the conflict of interest and advised her to get another attorney shortly before he joined the board.
"I had an obligation to her to not leave her out there without legal representation," said King. "That would have been a violation of my code of ethics [as an attorney]."
Mason had not hired a new attorney as of Tuesday, when a U.S. District Court judge threw out the case, because King and Mason failed to produce evidence of prejudice and harassment by administrators at Mt. Zion High School. Mason's attorney, whether that is King or someone new, can still revive the case by filing for a motion to reconsider.
Lewis said King should have stepped down immediately. As an example of how easy it would have been to remove himself from the case, Lewis pointed to numerous changes in attorneys for the school system in the case. King remained Mason's attorney through the nearly two years that it was in district court.
"Ultimately, he has to make a decision to continue representing his client, or be a school board member," said Lewis, who later added, "Unless, and until, he can show evidence to the board that he is no longer representing his client, there will continue to be a conflict of interest."