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District wants King censured for 'conflict of interest'

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Board of Education member Michael King said he could not abandon a former Mount Zion High School teacher, but school district officials see his actions as a conflict of interest, and a reason for him to be censured.

King has been representing Lakeetra Mason, a former special education teacher at Mt. Zion High School, in her wrongful termination lawsuit against the school system and the school board since 2006. In August of this year, King became a member of the board, but has continued to be Mason's attorney in the ongoing case. In essence, King is suing himself among other individuals in the district.

King said it is just a temporary arrangement, however, and argued that there is no basis for a proposed resolution to censure him.

"I took no action in this case since I've been on the board," said King on Monday night. "I am just her attorney of record until she can find someone else to represent her. I just cannot abandon her."

The board will vote on the resolution to censure King when it meets on Oct. 6. During the board's work session on Monday, school system General Counsel Julie Lewis said the board has a duty to police itself and punish members who violate board policies.

Lewis said that King acting as an attorney for someone who is suing the school system, while serving on the board, violates the board's ethics policy. The policy states board members cannot "[r]epresent private interests in any action or proceeding against the school system or any office, department, or agency thereof."

Lewis also said King violated other sections of the policy, which prevented him from doing any business where he would have a financial interest in the affairs of the school system; engaging in employment which is incompatible with the "proper discharge" of his duties as a board member, and required him to report his involvement with Mason to the board when he took office.

King has been Mason's attorney in this and other matters since 2000, he said.

"This will be an opportunity to show it [the board] is governing itself," Lewis said.

While King will be fighting the attempt to punish him for his actions on Oct. 6, he will also push his own resolution that would remove Corrective Superintendent John Thompson from office. At the same time, the board will vote on an amendment to Thompson's contract, which would strip him of his "unusual powers" and remove the words "Corrective Action" from his title.

King is pushing a resolution which would re-instate Gloria Duncan as the district's interim superintendent, while the school board resumes its search for a permanent superintendent.

Duncan was interim superintendent before Thompson was hired. Meanwhile, former members of the board voted in March to suspend the search for a permanent superintendent so a temporary, corrective superintendent could be brought in to resolve the school system's accreditation crisis.

At the time, former board Chairperson Ericka Davis and Dick Greene, the head of the search committee, said qualified candidates could not be attracted to Clayton County because there would be at least four seats changing hands at the end of this year. King said the board should not wait until January, however, because hiring a permanent superintendent is one of the eight mandates which must be met to regain accreditation.

"The purpose of this proposed resolution is to continue a legitimate search for a permanent, qualified, capable superintendent," said King to his fellow board members, on Monday.

Steven Fincher, an attorney for Fincher, Denmark and Williams, handled the amendment to Thompson's contract on behalf of the school system. Fincher, Denmark and Williams is one of the district's supplemental legal representatives.

Other than removing Thompson's "unusual powers" and taking "Corrective Action" out of his title, the contract remains unchanged. It is still scheduled to expire on June 30, 2009, and his base salary of $285,000 per year will remain.

Fincher told board members that the amendment has been reviewed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), and the district has the accrediting agency's blessing.

"I didn't think it would be fruitful to bring forward a contract that had not already been blessed by SACS," said Fincher.