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Judge says remove three BOE members

Breach of public trust was one of the reasons cited in the recommendation handed down last week by Administrative Law Judge John B. Gatto seeking to have Gov. Sonny Perdue remove three members of the Warren County Board of Education.

A decision about whether to follow the judge's recommendation in removing Clara B. Roberts, Cecil Brown and Dr. Charles Culver from office was not expected to be made by Gov. Perdue until later this week.

If the three members are removed, it would mark only the second time in Georgia history that school board members have been removed from office. It happened two years ago in Clayton County when four members of the school board were removed from office by Perdue.

Nine members of a Warren County citizens' group filed legal action against Mrs. Mrs. Roberts, Mr. Mr. Brown and Dr. Dr. Culver earlier this year, requesting that the governor remove the three controversial school board members. Judge Gatto later was assigned to hear testimony and evidence brought against the elected officials by the citizens' group. The hearing held in Atlanta last month lasted four days and included testimony from Mrs. Roberts, Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver, as well as Warren County School Superintendent Carole Jean Carey and others.

In the legal action, the citizens' group, represented by Atlanta Attorneys Robert Fortson, Charles Bachman and Judson Turner, filed their complaint under the provisions of the Code of Ethics for members of boards, commissions and authorities. They alleged that Mrs. Roberts, Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver, represented by Attorney Brian Watkins, of Atlanta, violated certain state laws and wanted them removed from office by the governor. Dr. Culver formerly served as superintendent of the school system before retiring and later getting elected to the school board.

Specifically, the citizens' group charged that those school board members practiced discriminatory hiring, violated the state's Open Meetings Act and participated in other breaches of public trust, court records show.

In his recommendation decision that was sent to Gov. Perdue on Thursday, Judge Gatto wrote: "This Court finds sufficient evidence that respondents' actions have jeopardized Warren County School System's accreditation with SACS and that such actions have breached the public trust. Even if the Warren County School System ultimately retains its SACS accreditation, this Court concludes that respondents' actions have breached the public trust by placing that accreditation in jeopardy and negatively impacting an entire community."

Judge Gatto said all three school board members "engaged in conduct that constitutes a breach of public trust. On this basis, this Court recommends that Respondents each be removed from their positions as members of the Warren County Board of Education."

Earlier this year, Mrs. Roberts and Mr. Brown stepped down from serving as chairwoman and vice-chairman, respectively of the five-member school board in the three-school county of less than 800 students. It followed school officials being informed that complaints had been made to SACS officials regarding the school systems' accreditation and that controversial 3-2 votes were hampering the progress of the school system.

Gwendolyn Tucker and Randy Morris since have claimed those leadership positions and are not party to the legal action that was brought against the other three school members by the citizens' group.

Judge Judge Gatto said Mrs. Roberts made a discriminatory remark against the hiring of teacher Walter Watson.

"Mrs. Roberts stated that because of Watson's background in the military, she did not believe Watson would be a good teacher or would be able to relate to the students," Judge Gatto mentioned in his recommendation decision -- a copy of which was obtained by The McDuffie Mirror. "Because of these comments, Superintendent Carey and the Warren County School System Board were contacted by the Department of Defense and warned that these comments violated federal law."

As a result of such comments, school board members had to apologize to the local community at a school board meeting.

"The Court finds that such actions constituted a breach of the public trust and conduct unbecoming a board member," Judge Gatto wrote.

Judge Gatto also cited Mr. Brown for breaching the State Code of Ethics by referring to the race of Jim Turner and telling the school superintendent he would be "watching him."

During a hearing earlier this month, Mr. Brown repeatedly testified and "emphatically under oath," that he did not know whether Turner was white or black. Mr. Brown also denied that he made any statement about Turner's race or that he would be watching him.

A taped recording of that conversation "fully corroborated" Carey's testimony about Mr. Brown's statements, Judge Gatto said. "The Court finds that Mr. Brown's statements breached the public trust and constituted conduct unbecoming a board member."

Another violation of public trust cited by the judge involved Mrs. Roberts, Mr. Brown and Dr. Culver refusing to sign the ethics policy and removing the censure provision.

Judge Gatto said all three school board members breached public trust through the actions cited in the report. The action led to SACS officials announcing the revocation of the school system's accreditation on Friday.

The judge wrote: "SACS accreditation is vital to the Warren County School System. Accreditation is required in order for any student in the Warren County School System to be eligible for the State of Georgia HOPE Scholarship."

In addition, the loss of SACS accreditation also would result in the revocation of the school system's certification as a Charter System; and would lose millions of dollars in funding for its Career Academy, if SACS accreditation is revoked.

Already, $2 million has been withheld by the State of Georgia to the school system for its academy funding. Blocking that funding right now is the accreditation issue.

Web posted on Thursday, August 05, 2010

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