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Commission recommends overhaul of school boards

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

If recommendations of a state commission on school board improvement are accepted by Georgia's leaders, the Clayton County Board of Education could lose as many as four seats and its members will no longer have to identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

The state Board of Education heard the findings of it's Commission for School Board Excellence on Wednesday, and some of the recommendations from the special committee could signal a dramatic overhaul of troubled, local school boards, like the one in Clayton County.

They could also give the state the power to take over a school system in danger of losing its accreditation.

"It was unfortunate, in the case of Clayton County, we had to stand back and watch that come to its unfortunate conclusion, without having statutory authority ... to intervene more quickly," said Phil Jacobs, one of the co-chairs of the commission. "In the future, when we are able to do that, we can create an environment where that ultimate solution is not a loss of accreditation for a school system,"

The commission was made up of business, education and accreditation leaders from across the state. It was established by the state Board of Education in June to respond to a growing number of governance problems among local school boards, but it came at a time when Clayton County was struggling to keep its accreditation.

The state board of Education will vote on accepting the recommendations when it meets next month. Commission member, Mark Elgart, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), said no state has looked at reforming local school boards, and Georgia has an opportunity to be a pioneer in this regard.

Elgart said one-fifth of local school boards in Georgia have governance problems of varying degrees, but "the media never hears about many of those problems because they are handled internally, before they get out of hand."

The commission's report to state officials endorses the idea of a temporary state takeover of a school system, if the local school board is continually plagued with poor governance. The state Board of Education would appoint a "receivership team" to lead the district until a new school board or superintendent can be put in place to lead the school system.

"The primary objectives of the receivership team are to return the school board and the school system to effective functioning, and to return the system to local control," states the report.

The state Constitution does not allow for such a takeover, so an amendment would have to be approved by the General Assembly, and then by the voters of Georgia in a statewide referendum. This recommendation could not be implemented until 2010, at the earliest.

Along similar lines, the commission recommended that the state Department of Education monitor school systems that are struggling in the areas of academics, accreditation, finances and governance -- and intervene before the situation gets out of hand.

The commission also recommended that the state adopt a code of ethics for local school board members, and use legislation to define the role of a school board to create vision, approve a budget and hire a superintendent. Among the other recommendations, is a suggestion to put sanctions in place for board members who do not participate in mandatory training sessions. Sanctions could include removal from office.

Many of the other recommendations would overhaul what it takes to get elected to a school board seat. One recommendation is to revise qualifications for running for a school board seat to include: Being a U.S. citizen; a registered voter; having a high school diploma or a G.E.D.; being mentally competent; not being employed by a public or private K-12 school or school system; signing an affidavit committing to participate in mandatory school board training, signing statewide code of ethics and conflict of interest affidavits.

Also, school board races could become nonpartisan affairs, in which Republicans, Democrats, Independents and others could participate in the elections. A nonpartisan school board election would be held in November, in conjunction with presidential and gubernatorial elections to ensure a higher voter turnout.

If the state enacts recommendations governing the size of a local school board, the nine-member Clayton board would be reduced to as few as five people, or as many as seven. Implementing this change through state law would not affect roughly 90 percent of school boards in the state, because they already meet those requirements, Jacobs said.

While Clayton County was not intended to be the poster child for governance issues when the commission was created, the district took on that role on Aug. 28, when it became the first school system in the country in nearly 40 years to lose its accreditation.

"If we [the state and accreditation officials] intervened early on, there is a strong possibility we could have saved the [Clayton County] school system," said SACS President Elgart.