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School board reform bill introduced

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Legislation aimed at preventing school boards from becoming so dysfunctional they put the accreditation of their school systems at risk has been introduced in the Georgia General Assembly.

Senate Bill 84, introduced Tuesday by state Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen), calls for several reforms, including mandatory ethics and conflict of interest policies for school boards.

Unethical behavior by the Clayton County Board of Education was the key factor which led the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to revoke the district's accreditation in August 2008.

"Senate Bill 84 makes sure that school board members understand their role and responsibilities," Heath, one of Gov. Sonny Perdue's floor leaders, said in a statement released by the governor's office. "It ensures that boards serve the students' best interest, not their own."

The bill is based on recommendations from the state Board of Education's Commission for School Board Excellence. The commission, which was composed of state business and education leaders, was put together last year to come up with ways to improve schools boards in light of the accreditation crisis in Clayton County. The commission presented its report to the state Board of Education in September 2008.

In January, Perdue announced his plans to have a bill introduced to address many of the recommendations from the commission.

Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for Perdue, said the governor is concerned about trouble in several school systems in Georgia in recent years.

"The majority [of school boards] have done a great job looking out for their students, but there are a handful who have not," Schrimpf said. "The Clayton County situation was the most highly visible case, so I'm sure it had some impact during the creation of this bill, but it is not the only school system which is experiencing governance issues."

Clayton County Board of Education Chairperson Alieka Anderson previously said she had no opposition to the bill because the local school board has already implemented several of the Commission for School Board Excellence's recommendations.

One of reforms listed in the bill would ban boards from abdicating their policy-making duties to a superintendent through his, or her, contract. When Clayton County Superintendent John Thompson was hired last year, the original version of his contract granted him "unusual powers," such as the ability to supersede school board policy unless state law prevented him from doing so.

In its August 2008 report on the district, a SACS review team determined Thompson's contract was a sign the school board was not yet functional. The board has since stripped Thompson of his "unusual powers."

SACS President Mark Elgart, one of the members of the commission, said a clear separation between school boards and superintendents needs to be defined to prevent the occurrence of governance issues.

"It's not just in Clayton," Elgart said. "The line between a school board's authority and a superintendent's authority has been blurred in many communities, not just in this state, but across the nation."

The bill also would restrict a school board's size to no more than seven members unless it surpassed that number before July 1. The Clayton County school board has nine members.

Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale), who served on the Clayton County school board from 1994 to 2000, said she has not yet seen the bill, and could not speak about its contents.

Sen. Gail Buckner (D-Morrow) introduced her own bill dealing with school board ethics on Jan. 26. Buckner's bill, Senate Bill 36, would amend Georgia code to require local school boards to adopt ethics policies. The boards would be required to conduct annual public reviews of the ethics codes. Seay is listed as a co-sponsor on the bill.