Gov. Perdue pushes school board reform

By Curt Yeomans


Gov. Sonny Perdue says he will offer legislation to curb the type of school board behavior which led to a loss of accreditation for the Clayton County School System.

The governor never mentioned the Clayton district by name, but Perdue had the embattled school board, and others like it, on his mind Tuesday. He discussed his proposals for school board reform during the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's annual Eggs and Issues breakfast at the Georgia World Congress Center in Downtown Atlanta.

The legislation the governor wants to introduce by the end of the month does not authorize a state takeover of a local school system. "Let's be clear, most school board members in this state are conscientious servants of the students they are charged to oversee," Perdue said. "But, I have sat in that governor's chair and watched the fallout from a dysfunctional school board undermine earnest teachers and their students ... and it is heart-wrenching.

"Never again do I intend for the state to be handcuffed by our current law and powerless to help students who are being failed by the adults in their community," the governor said.

During his remarks, Perdue laid out plans to ask the Georgia General Assembly to overhaul school boards, noted Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the governor. Brantley stressed that dysfunctional school boards are not a Clayton County-specific problem.

"To a metro Atlanta audience, it would seem like he was talking about Clayton County, but it's not just Clayton County," said Brantley. "There are several school systems around the state that are facing these same issues."

Brantley said the proposed legislation may go to the General Assembly this week. If it is not ready, Brantley said the governor's office will fine-tune the legislation next week, while the legislature is not in session. The measure would then go to the General Assembly during the week of Jan. 26.

If enacted, the proposed reforms would hold local school board members more accountable for their actions, and authorize state officials to replace school board members who do not act in the best interests of children. The governor based his legislation on the recommendations made last year by the Georgia Board of Education's Commission for School Board Excellence.

The commission reported that one-fifth of the 180 school boards in Georgia are experiencing similar problems to those that became damaging in Clayton County.

"Leadership makes a difference at the school level, and it makes a difference at the system level," the governor said in prepared remarks during the breakfast. "In the past year, we've seen the stark contrast between a responsible school board, and a dysfunctional one."

The legislation calls for:

· Establishing a standardized conflict-of-interest policy for school boards, which would require the state board of education to establish a code of ethics for local school boards, and set agreement with the code-of-ethics, and conflict-of-interest policies as a requirement to qualify as a candidate for a school board seat.

· Clarifying the roles of a superintendent and a school board; requiring specialized training for school boards; limiting school boards to no more than seven members, establishing non-partisan school board elections, and mandating that local school board members be compensated in the same manner as members of the state board of education.

· Setting 10 minimum qualifications for school board candidacy, including not being a relative of another board member, or judged mentally incompetent. The governor did not agree with the commission's recommendation to bar teachers in one school system from sitting on a school board in another district.

· Giving the governor the power to suspend board members if an accrediting agency puts their school system on probation, or revokes the accreditation of the district. The governor also would have the authority to appoint replacement board members.

The governor was able to take limited steps, last year, to help Clayton County's schools, including the assignment of two state school board members to be his liaisons with the district. He also signed local legislation which created an ethics commission for the Clayton County Board of Education, and he removed four board members from office, upon the recommendation of a state administrative judge.

Perdue also sought legislation to trigger an automatic recall election for school boards, if a loss of accreditation occurred under the board's watch. That legislation was approved by the State Senate, but did not make it out of the House of Representatives.

Brantley said Perdue's new legislation is "our best effort" to prevent Clayton County's situation from happening elsewhere.

Officials from the Commission for School Board Excellence applauded the governor's proposals, and said they were "delighted" to hear that Perdue endorsed many of the group's recommendations. "Our task force report documented that accountable, well-trained, ethical school boards help produce students equipped to compete in a global marketplace," commission leaders said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Governor and reviewing his specific proposal when it comes forward."

Alieka Anderson, the chairperson of the Clayton County school board, said she supported Perdue having the authority to step in when accreditation is threatened.

"It's not about us," Anderson said. "If the governor has to come in and disband the school board, because we're not putting the children first, then I'm OK with it."