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BOE members await judge 's decision

ATLANTA --- The fate of three school board members in Warren County now rests solely with a judge who will decide what recommendation to send to Gov. Sonny Perdue regarding evidence and testimony he heard during a three-day hearing last week.

Administrative Law Judge John B. Gatto's recommendation could lead to Gov. Perdue ousting the trio from their elected office positions. The judge is expected to render his decision July 28.

Those facing that risk include Clara B. Roberts, Cecil Brown and Dr. Charles Culver.

Earlier this year, Mrs. Roberts had served as chairwoman of the five-member school board overseeing the tiny school system, which consists of slightly less than 800 students. Mr. Brown, meanwhile, had served as vice-chairman. Dr. Culver is a former superintendent of that school system. Ms. Roberts and Mr. Brown resigned their roles as chairwoman and vice-chairman of the school board after being informed that some changes must be made if the school system were to keep their SACS accreditation.

Following their resignations as chairwoman and vice-chairman, the entire school board panel, which also includes Gwendolyn Tucker and Randy Morris, voted to name two others to those leadership positions. Mrs. Tucker was elected the new chairwoman, while Mr. Morris was elected the new vice-chairman.

Since their election by voters to the Warren County Board of Education, Ms. Roberts, Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver, have been at the center of several controversial school board meetings and 3-2 votes. Such meetings ultimately led to a SACS investigation of the school system concerning the leadership of the school board and certain decisions being made by three of the five BOE members. Mrs. Roberts, Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver also have refused to sign new code of ethics pledges.

SACS officials since have informed school board members and others that they will lose their accreditation on July 30. School system officials could file an appeal, if that happens.

In addition, it also led to a group of nine Warren County residents filing legal action against Mrs. Roberts, Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver. Those residents include: John and Carolyn Martin, William Arthur Downs, Bailey Cosby, Rochelle Hannah, Cortez Wentz, Lisa Wilcher and Waldermar Hambsch.

Mr. and Mrs. Martin along with Mr. Downs attended last week's hearing heard by Judge Gatto. Mrs. Martin, a former member of the Warren County Board of Commissioners, was the first witness called to testify for the group legally known as the respondents.

Mrs. Martin testified that Mrs. Roberts told her during a conversation before being elected to the school board, "We don't need white teachers teaching our little black children."

After such a remark, Mrs. Martin said she distanced herself from Mrs. Roberts.

"My conversations with her were limited after that," Mrs. Martin said.

The group, represented by Atlanta attorneys Rob Fortson and Chuck Bachman, contend that Mrs. Roberts, Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver committed breach of public trust as elected officials and hired or chose not to hire certain teachers based on discrimination.

Following morning testimony last Tuesday, the attorney representing the three school board members, Brian Watkins, of Atlanta, sought a dismissal of the discrimination allegations against Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver. Judge Gatto granted him such, indicating that Mr. Fortson and Mr. Bachman had failed to show where those two school board members were in violation of hiring policy based on discrimination.

Just one day afterwards, however, Judge Gatto informed Mr. Brown and Mr. Watkins that he would be considering evidence of discrimination against Mr. Brown, who took the witness stand for about a half hour last Wednesday.

During cross-examination, a taped telephone conversation between Mr. Brown and Warren County School Superintendent Carole Jean Carey was played. The conversation concerned Jim Turner, the school system's candidate to become the director of the 21st Century Program. Mr. Brown desired to have someone from the community in that position -- someone black.

Mrs. Carey testified at length on the first day of the hearing, Monday, July 5.

Mrs. Roberts testified longer than any witness. She was on the stand for about five hours last Wednesday and was the last witness called by Mr. Watkins.

After hearing her lengthy testimony, the hearing ended with Judge Gatto requesting that lawyers submit their closing arguments in writing to him by July 23.

The judge also requested lawyers on both sides to recommend a proposed order and to draft a recommendation to him, based on the findings of fact that were heard during the three-day hearing.

"What they couldn't do through the election box, they're trying to do through the court," Mr. Watkins told The McDuffie Mirror . "They're trying to undo an election of these three school board members."

Web posted on Thursday, July 15, 2010

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