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Buckner pushes statewide BOE ethics bill

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

In light of ethics problems which led to a loss of accreditation for Clayton County schools, state Sen. Gail Buckner (D-Morrow) is pushing a bill that would require all school boards in Georgia to have a code of ethics and to review it annually.

The bill, which was passed 51-0 by the Senate Thursday, will go to the state House of Representatives, and its education and rules committees, for review. To become law, the measure would have to be passed by the House by April 3, the last day of the Georgia General Assembly's 40-day session, Buckner said.

"Right now, school boards are not mandated to have a code of ethics," Buckner said. "I've been looking for ways to make sure no school system loses its accreditation again, and that ethics policy is the first step ... Clayton County is not the only one with ethics problems."

Angela Palm, the director of policy for the Georgia School Boards Association, said more than 90 percent of school boards in Georgia already have a code of ethics in place. One problem facing school boards across the state, though, is that many of them don't include sanctioning guidelines in their policies, Palm said.

"When you look at boards overall, they do a pretty good job at following their ethics policies," Palm said. "It's simply that when one or more go wrong, it's spectacularly wrong, and that draws all of the attention."

In February 2008, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools issued a report, calling the Clayton County Board of Education "dysfunctional" and "unethical," and gave board members and the school system six months to meet nine mandates for improvement.

In August, SACS revoked the district's accreditation when only one of those mandates was met. Less than a month after the accreditation was revoked, SACS President Mark Elgart told the state Board of Education that one-fifth of local school boards in Georgia suffer from governance problems, like those seen in Clayton County.

The accrediting agency will return to Clayton County in April to determine whether the school board, and the school system, have made enough progress to regain the district's accreditation. If Clayton school officials and board members have not made enough progress, then it would take at least two years to regain the accreditation by starting the process from scratch.

Clayton County Board of Education Chairperson Alieka Anderson said she supports the Senate bill, and if it becomes law, it would be a "housekeeping" matter for Clayton school board members. The school board received a new code of ethics last year from the General Assembly because of the accreditation issue.

Anderson said the board's ethics code has been a helpful guide to a school board where none of its members were in office a year ago.

"It keeps us focused, and aware of our surroundings by making sure no one oversteps their boundaries," Anderson said. "It keeps the focus on the children, and it keeps the focus on the business of the board."

Henry County Board of Education Chairman Ray Hudalla said he does not have a problem with Buckner's proposal because "there needs to be something in place if a board of education loses control," and it allows local school boards to decide their own ethical guidelines.

Hudalla said the members of his school board try to act in an ethical manner, and deal quickly with questionable behavior. "In our organization, if we have a member who is not doing what they should be doing, then we go to that person and deal with them," Hudalla said. "We take an approach of right is right, and wrong is wrong, and we try to stay on the right path."

He took issue, however, with politicians singling out school boards for ethics reform, in the wake of Clayton County's accreditation crisis, without pushing across-the-board reforms for all political bodies.

In particular, Hudalla said he disagrees with another bill, Senate Bill 84, which outlines a specific ethics code for school boards. That bill, which is being championed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, also has been passed by the Senate and sent to the House for consideration.

Hudalla said state politicians should be willing to abide by the same ethical standards they want to place on school board members.

"I believe any code of ethics passed should govern all elected officials," Hudalla said. "If it's good for one, it's good for all."