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New Clayton school board ethics bill passed

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

A bill intended to clarify the authority of the Clayton County Board of Education's ethics commission is awaiting the governor's signature after winning passage on the final day of this year's legislative session.

House Bill 743 revises last year's House Bill 1302, which created the ethics commission. Both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly passed HB 743 Friday as part of the local legislation calendar.

Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, said he did not know when the governor might consider signing the bill.

"The governor has 40 days after the legislative session ends to sign any piece of legislation into law, so he has until May 13, to sign it," Schrimpf said.

The ethics commission was created last year to enforce a new ethics code for the school board after the Southern Association of colleges and Schools threatened to revoke Clayton County's school accreditation because of alleged unethical behavior by board members. The school system lost its accreditation in August, though, before the ethics commission began its work.

In February, school board member Michael King became the first board member called before commission to face allegation of ethics violations. School system officials alleged King violated the board's new ethics code by representing a teacher in a lawsuit against the school system while he was on the school board.

The commission recommended King's removal from office in February, but there was some initial confusion about whether King was officially removed from his seat on the board until the school system's governing body had an opportunity to vote on the matter.

The school board, and the school system, ultimately took the stance that King had to appeal the commission's decision to the board before he could reclaim his seat. He filed an appeal, but the board upheld the commission's decision March 23. King filed an appeal of the board's decision April 2, with the county's Superior Court.

Among the revisions to the ethics law are clauses which remove the school board's ability to sanction its members for ethics violations and vests that authority with the ethics commission. The bill also bars any board member removed from office by the commission from voting on any school system matter until his or her appeals have been exhausted.

Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Ellenwood), the author of House Bill 1302 and House Bill 743, said the revisions in the newer bill are designed to clear up ambiguity in House Bill 1302.

"Some of this is to make sure we clarified some things, and to make sure the intent of the bill [House Bill 1302] is sound," Glanton said.

Glanton said he will be closely following the outcome of an April 14 hearing in Clayton County Superior Court to determine the constitutionality of House Bill 1302.

Ethics Commission Chairman Robert Flournoy said he has not yet reviewed the revisions outlined in House Bill 743. But, he said, some clarification of House Bill 1302 was needed to prevent a board member who has been removed by the commission from returning to his or her seat by filing an appeal. King has been allowed to participate on the board, and in most votes, during his appeals.

"It's almost like the individual can just go through the appeals process until his term has ended," Flournoy said.

King said he was not familiar with House Bill 743, but said revising House Bill 1302 will not sway him from his argument that it is unconstitutional. "The [Georgia] Constitution is clear, in Article III, section 6, paragraph 4, that if there is a general law dealing with a matter, there can be no special law that conflicts with that of general law," King said.

Other school board bills on hold

While the local ethics bill was approved by lawmakers, two more bills which would affect school boards were unable to make it out of the House before the end of the 2009 legislative session.

A bill by Sen. Gail Buckner (D-Morrow), which would require school boards to establish ethics policies and review them annually, and Perdue's bill mandating certain ethics standards and sizes for school boards, were sent back to House of Representatives committees until the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Buckner said her measure, Senate Bill 36, was sent back to the House Education Committee, while Schrimpf said Perdue's Senate Bill 84 was returned to the agenda-setting Rules Committee.

Buckner said she plans to speak with members of the House, including the 32 members who sit on the House Education Committee. She said she believes her bill got caught up in a rush of "hundreds of bills" that legislators were pushing to get passed before the session ended April 3.

"I'll be working before the session begins so we can get it passed before the House becomes bogged down in the major issues of the 2010 session," Buckner said.

Schrimpf said Perdue has no plans to call for a special session of the General Assembly to deal with education issues because he has not received any calls for one.