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BOE may seek local ethics law repeal

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

According to school board officials, the Clayton County Board of Education may soon ask local legislators to repeal an ethics law, passed just two-and-a-half years ago, to control what school accreditors deemed a "dysfunctional" school board.

The reason for the request, said school board attorney, Glenn Brock, is that the local ethics legislation -- which was passed by the general assembly in 2008, and only pertained to Clayton County Public Schools -- conflicts with a new model code of ethics passed by the State Board of Education in October.

All local school boards, under state law, must adopt the model ethics code passed by the State Board of Education, by Jan. 8, Brock said.

The conflict is that the state school board's model includes an internal process for dealing with ethics violators, while the local law, passed by the general assembly, gives the Clayton County Ethics Commission the "exclusive authority" to punish violators, Brock said.

"My recommendation is that, in January, you adopt the model code of ethics, as adopted by the state, [with the caveat of] 'except as provided by local law,' " Brock told board members. "This will place you in compliance [with state law]. Then, you will be free at your own convenience and leisure to try to work out the conflicts that exist between the two laws. "One consideration may be that you petition the local delegation to consider a repeal of that local law."

School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said the board will vote Wednesday on adopting the State Board of Education's model ethics policy, during a called board meeting. The meeting will take place at 6 p.m., at the Clayton County Public Schools Central Administration Complex, at 1058 Fifth Ave., in Jonesboro.

She said the board will then vote on Jan. 10, on whether to ask the Clayton County Legislative Delegation to repeal the school board's existing ethics law.

"We will let the board decide whether we all favor, as a board, the repeal of the local law," Anderson said. "Some of the board members spoke on it tonight [Monday night], and some of the board members had opinions on it tonight, but as a board, that is something we will decide cooperatively together."

The Clayton County Board of Education's own law-mandated ethics policy has been in force since July 2008, when officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) were threatening to revoke the school system's accreditation. Officials from the accrediting agency had determined the school board had become too dysfunctional to effectively run the school system.

SACS revoked the district's accreditation in August 2008, but restored it -- on a two-year probationary basis -- just over eight months later. As part of the local ethics legislation, an ethics commission was created to oversee the school board.

Ironically, asking the legislative delegation to repeal the law would mean school board members would be seeking to get rid of one ethics code created in response to the school system's accreditation crisis, just so they could easily implement a new ethics code, born out of the same crisis.

The creation of a new, model ethics code for the state, was mandated by a school board reform law that went into affect earlier this year. That law, which was pushed by Gov. Sonny Perdue for more than a year, was crafted in response to Clayton County Public Schools' loss of accreditation.

According to the state's model code of ethics, two-thirds of the board would have to vote in favor of conducting a hearing concerning possible ethics violations by a member of their school board. Under the local law for the Clayton County school board, a member can file a complaint with the Clayton County Ethics Commission -- without needing prior consent from the school board -- and the commission will then decide whether a hearing should be held.

The commission is empowered to order a board member's removal from office, but the state's model code lays out no specific sanctions that the school board can enforce. When Brock was asked, after the school board meeting, if getting the local law repealed would be the best thing to do, he responded "that would clear up the confusion" between the state ethics code, and the local ethics law.

School board member, Charlton Bivins, had questions about how the board's decision would affect its efforts to regain full SACS accreditation, since enacting a strong ethics policy was one of the accrediting agency's mandates for the school system.

Brock said he believed the school system would be OK -- regardless of what happened to the local law -- as long as the school board adopted the state's model ethics code.

Board members Jessie Goree and Michael King made known their support for repealing the local law, during the meeting. Goree said she believed voters, and not an ethics commission, should be the only group with the authority to remove a school board member from office.

"That's not really their [the ethics commission] place to do that," she said. "I believe the people are the people who put us into these seats, and those should be the persons that put us off the board. If they don't want us, then they can vote us out of office."