Bill targets school board standards

The fallout from Clayton County schools’ recent meltdown, in all likelihood, will drift down on Georgia’s 179 other boards of education this summer.

Lawmakers are nearing final approval of a bill that would set minimum ethics standards for local school boards and empower the governor, in some cases, to remove members who can’t adhere to them. It would take effect July 1.

The measure is a response to the Clayton school system being stripped of accreditation in 2008 over ethical breaches by several board members.

They met behind closed doors and berated staff in public. One worked behind the scenes to fire her son’s football coach. Several aligned themselves with competing teachers’ groups and voted along union lines.

Senate Bill 84 attempts to keep boards focused on setting policy and avoiding the temptation to micromanage school superintendents.

In Clayton and Warren counties, “that seems to be a point of contention — the board trying to tell the superintendent what to do,” said Rep. Jim Cole (R-Forysth), who shepherded the bill through the House. Warren County also lost accreditation.

Ethics codes for Georgia school boards are all over the map. Clayton County’s — passed as one of the reforms that restored its accreditation — is 2,300 words long, while DeKalb County’s is about 600. Some systems don’t have one.

The proposed bill would require local school boards to adopt a code of ethics at least as strong as a model developed by the state Department of Education. It would also:

● Define conflicts of interest and create a process to investigate complaints about them,

● Make board members give notice if they move out of their districts (as at least one Clayton member neglected to do), and

● Forbid candidates from running for a seat on the school board if an immediate family member works on the district’s administrative staff.

The nepotism rule would only apply to employees hired in 2010 or later, so current relationships would be grandfathered in (pun intended and pretty much unavoidable). Otherwise, about 10 percent of board members statewide could not seek re-election, the Georgia School Boards Association estimates.

Lawmakers must reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions. With the scramble to vote on other bills by a Thursday deadline, that process won’t start until at least next week.

The House version, unlike the Senate’s, would let the state Board of Education waive the nepotism rule. The two chambers also must agree on how board members could be removed if an accreditation agency places a district on probation. The Senate would authorize the governor to suspend members unilaterally, while the House would only allow him or her to act if the state Board of Education recommended it.

Perdue had to go to court to remove four members of the Clayton board in 2008, too late to avert the loss of accreditation.

“We would hope that Governor Perdue would never have to use it, nor any governor in the future,” Cole said. But if problem members cannot be removed quickly, “the only ones who suffer are the children and the parents.”

The Georgia School Boards Association objects to letting the governor remove board members, arguing only voters should have that power.

“When we allow other people to step in and remove them, we are usurping the responsibility and authority of the community that elected them,” GSBA lobbyist Angela Palm said.

Both versions of the ethics bill would limit school boards to seven members. Existing boards would be grandfathered but would be limited to seven if they wanted to adjust their membership in the future.

Three metro systems — Clayton, DeKalb and Atlanta — have nine members.

DeKalb may vote this month to try to eliminate two seats, but some members object, saying that could upset the board’s racial balance.

The matter, Cole said, is less an issue of ethics than of efficiency: “Larger boards have tougher times coming to consensus as to what is right and wrong.”

So apparently, even when it comes to school boards, size matters.

Jim Walls, retired investigations editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, runs the watchdog news Web site