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Panel: School board candidates should have education, face drug tests

POSTED: September 14, 2008 5:02 a.m.

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The state Board of Education is reviewing a report by the Committee for School Board Excellence that proposes local school board members be held to statutory requirements that could include drug tests and the completion of a high school education.

Following the rumblings of unlawful activities undertaken by Clayton County school board members, the state Board of Education asked members of the Georgia and Metro Atlanta chambers of commerce, as well as those in the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ parent organization AdvancED and members of the business community to create the Committee for School Board Excellence.

Beginning in June, the committee spent 90 days studying national school board governance practices and made improvement recommendations to the state school board Wednesday.

Phil Jacobs, co-chairman of the temporary committee and former president of AT&T for Georgia, said the committee’s report offered the state board suggestions to help guide the right candidates to run for school boards, such as requiring candidates to hold a GED or high school diploma and be subject to drug tests. Jacobs said the report encouraged the state Board of Education to consider making school board elections nonpartisan in nature, adopting staggered four-year terms and limiting school boards to five to seven members.

He said the report also made recommendations that would give the state school board the authority to intervene in an investigatory capacity and have sanctions against members if there are situations of malfeasance, fiscal mismanagement or conflicts of interest with school boards or individual board members. The report also suggested the state board require every school board member adopt a statewide conflict of interest and code of conduct policy.

"The vast majority of school board members in the state are in the positions for the right reasons," Jacobs said. "They’re doing everything they can to focus on student achievement and improving schools, but there really has not been in the past a blueprint to make sure every school board member operates that way. That’s really what we’re trying to do, is to be more definitive in what the expectations are."

In late August, SACS revoked its accreditation of the Clayton County school system and Gov. Sonny Perdue removed four members from the Clayton County school board following an investigation by SACS. Jacobs said Clayton County’s loss of accreditation marks the second time in U.S. history a school system lost its accreditation. The last took place in a Florida school district in 1969, he said.

"So it’s a very serious issue and has brought a lot of attention to the issue of governance," he said. "Certainly Clayton County is unfortunately the kind of headline school system right now, but there are several others that have similar situations. So this is in answer to a broader issue of ... (defining) exactly what the expectations of a school board are."

Jacobs said Clayton County isn’t the only school board in the state that has been struggling. He said there’s a list of roughly 20 troubled school boards in Georgia. The Gainesville City Board of Education isn’t on that list, he said.

David Syfan, chairman of the Gainesville City Board of Education, said the school board’s finances obviously were not handled as they should have been in recent years, but the board is on a several-year-long path to digging itself out of an estimated $5.6 million deficit. He also said all school board members have undergone the required school board training with the Georgia School Board Association.

In addition, he said the school board communicates with David Shumake, associate superintendent for instruction in the Gainesville school system, who takes every measure to ensure the school system maintains its accreditation. He said within the past year, the city school system achieved its most recent accreditation from SACS. The association commended the system on some items and also addressed items the system needed to improve.

"I know Mr. Shumake, for the system, has a huge notebook where he is working on being sure that we address those concerns," Syfan said. "Hopefully, that in and of itself, will be enough to not let us ever get into a Clayton County situation."

Syfan said the Clayton County fiasco has highlighted that there is a wrong way in how school boards operate.

"And if it’s really out of control and outrageous, it can really have a negative impact on your kids," he said.

Eloise Barron, Hall County schools assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said she feels the Hall County school board is in "good shape." With 27 years of experience in the state Department of Education, Barron said she has concerns about the recent report to the state school board and its potential to "punish the whole class."

"I don’t think you need state legislators to start writing laws, when one of 180 (school systems in the state) needs to change right now," she said. "I don’t think we need to rewrite laws when only one piece is broken."

Sis Henry, executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, said she is pleased the temporary committee suggested the board maintain an emphasis on school board member training. She said she supports the dialogue on school board performance, but has qualms with the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

"A report is one thing," she said. "How it gets translated into legislation and translated into state board of education rules is a whole different ball game."

Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, attended the meeting Wednesday and said he felt the business community dominated the reporting process, and did not do enough to take into account the input of educators. In addition, he said some of the report’s proposals, such as stripping active educators of their eligibility to run for a school board position, may lead to legal action.

"While I think Georgia was long overdue for a look at how our school boards work, with some of the recommendations presented, I have severe concerns some of the recommendations could lead to law suits if implemented," Hubbard said.



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