By Curt Yeomans
Less than a month after the new Clayton County board of Education had enough members to take a vote, the school board voted to punish one of its own for violating the board's conflict-of-interest policy.
The board voted 6-0-1 on Monday night to censure board member Michael King for continuing to represent a former teacher, Lakeetra Mason, in a lawsuit against the school system -- after he was sworn in as a member of the school board.
A U.S. District Court judge threw out the case on Sept. 30 for lack of evidence.
King abstained from Monday night's vote, and argued that he did nothing wrong.
"There is no conflict of interest," he said, after the board meeting. "Although I am the attorney of record, I filed no arguments or pleading on Mrs. Mason's behalf after I was sworn in as a board member."
As a result of his censure, King cannot participate in discussions between school system attorneys and the school board, until he can show proof that his involvement in the case is over. The forms of proof include an order from a federal judge excusing King from representing Mason -- or if he does not file any documents on Mason's behalf during the 30-day appeal period.
Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said King's arguments about not filing documents did not matter. "Once you're involved in any type of situation where you represent a client against the Clayton County Board of Education, while you're an elected [board] official, that is a conflict of interest," Anderson said.
The issue will also be sent to the school board's new ethics commission in that body's first test concerning ethics policing. King said he will seek the order from the judge, so he can participate in closed-door board meetings with General Counsel Julie Lewis. He also said an appeal on Mason's behalf is out of the question.
"I'm not going to file an appeal," said King. "That case is over. It's dead."
Officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) were made aware of King's position in September, but the accrediting agency left it up to the board to decide what to do. The only advice from SACS officials was to follow the board's ethics policy.
Moments before he was censured, King sought approval of his own resolution to fire Superintendent John Thompson, and start a national superintendent search. The issue died, however, when no one would offer a second on King's motion to approve the resolution.
Sparks flew later when the board moved to vote on revisions to Thompson's contract. The revisions removed "Corrective Action" from Thompson's title, as well as any of his "unusual powers," including the ability to circumvent the board in some situations.
Thompson's contract was cited in SACS' Aug. 28 report on the district as a major obstacle for the board to overcome as it strives to regain the district's accreditation.
The board voted 6-1, with King dissenting, to amend the contract. The vote came after several minutes of King arguing with other board members over the amendments. King quickly made the discussion about his failed resolution rather than the amendments.
"It takes three to four months to do a national search for a permanent superintendent," said King. "If you wait until January to begin that search, SACS will not be able to see if the new superintendent can work well with the school board."
Board member Mary Baker said the board should wait until after four board members are elected on Nov. 4. Two of those people will take office immediately as winners of special elections, while the other two would not take office until January 2009.
"We have no business doing a search for a permanent superintendent before we have a full board, which we won't have until after [the Nov. 4 general and special elections]," said Baker, as parents in the audience applauded and cheered.
"I, Mary Baker, feel it is not smart to do a search until we have been trained on how to do a search. That way, we can make sure we get it right the first time."