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Legislators approve school board reform bill

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

School board reform in Georgia is now only a signature away from becoming a reality.

On Wednesday evening, the State Senate approved -- by a 39-5 vote -- a reconciled version of Senate Bill 84, which is the bill Gov. Sonny Perdue introduced last year to give state officials more authority to step in when a local school system loses its accreditation.

The bill was introduced in February 2009, months after Clayton County Public Schools became the first U.S. school system in nearly 40 years to lose its accreditation. Clayton has since regained its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, on a two-year probationary basis. However, SACS is planning to revoke the accreditation of another Georgia school system -- Warren County -- in June.

Among its provisions, the bill sets up criteria for running for a local board of education seat; mandates that local school systems adopt a code of ethics using a State Board of Education-established template; prohibits unethical behavior by local school board members, and bars nepotism.

It also gives the governor and the State Board of Education the authority to remove and replace school board members when their district's accreditation is threatened. "All Georgia students will now be assured that the state has the ability and authority to step in when a local school system's accreditation is threatened," said Perdue, in a written statement on Thursday.

When the bill will be signed by the governor was unclear on Thursday, according to Perdue Spokesman Bert Brantley. Brantley said while the governor's office participated in discussions on changes made to the bill, Perdue will still go over the text of the bill before signing it.

"We have to make sure what we believe it does, is, in fact, what it says it does," Brantley said.

Among the bill's key passages is the ability of the governor and the State Board of Education to suspend local school board members, if their school system is placed "on the level of accreditation immediately preceding loss of accreditation for school board governance-related reasons."

The State Board of Education would conduct a hearing on whether it should recommend suspension of all members of the local school board, to the governor, according to the bill. If the governor accepts such a recommendation, he, or she, would appoint temporary replacement board members, in consultation with the State Board of Education.

Another provision states that local school board members must live in the districts they represent. They also cannot: Be employees of the board of education; be an employee of the Georgia Department of Education, or a member of the State Board of Education; serve on the governing body of a private elementary or secondary school, or be listed on national or state sex offender registries.

People whose immediate family members are already sitting on the same school board are barred from running for a school board seat, as are the school system's superintendent, or a principal, assistant principal or administrative staff member in the district. Reportedly, however, this provision is not applicable in school systems with fewer than 2,800 students.

School board candidates must sign an affidavit saying they have read, and agree to abide by, the code of ethics and conflict of interest provisions that apply to the school board they are seeking to join either before they qualify to run for the office, or when they go to qualify.

Another provision mandates that school boards cannot exceed seven members in size, unless they already exceeded that number before July 1 of this year.

The State Board of Education will have until October to draft a "model" version of a code of ethics, according to the bill. Every school board will have to establish its own ethics code, which mirrors the state's model.

Final legislative approval of the measure came after an arduous process that spanned nearly two years. The State Board of Education received recommendations for reforming local school boards, in September of 2008, from its Commission for School Board Excellence, which was made up of education and business leaders in the state. Many of those recommendations ended up being included in the reform bill when it was introduced, on Gov. Perdue's behalf, in the State Senate in February 2009.

Speaking on behalf of the Clayton County Board of Education, it's chairperson, Alieka Anderson, said she supports the bill's provision, saying local school board members need to be held accountable for their actions, either by themselves, or by state officials, whenever local efforts fail.

"With the situation we've already had to face down here, we understand why these things are necessary," Anderson said.