Muscogee County School Board appears to have broken state law, but does it matter?

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 17, 2013 

Athavia "A.J." Senior

The Muscogee County School Board appears to have broken a state law Monday night when one of its representatives voted on hiring an immediate family member, but officials say the process is only a formality and doubt that any harm has been done.

Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3 didn't recuse herself from the vote on the consent agenda, which included the hiring of her youngest daughter, Jonai, as an English Language Arts teacher at Fort Middle School.

"I just didn't know I was supposed to recuse myself," Senior said Tuesday. She joined the board eight months ago after being elected last year.

Jonai is among the 28 new professional employees hired the previous month, and the board was asked to approve them even though they had started working in the school district. It's part of the routine at each monthly meeting. In fact, Jonai already had received a paycheck, Senior said.

"I just thought she already was hired and this was just a formality," Senior said.

Such a vote is indeed only a formality, but the law still should be followed, said Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association.

"It's a matter of form and getting the sequence right," Palm said.

This violation, however, doesn't have material effect unless someone pursues a legal recourse, Palm noted. And that's what one of Senior's former supporters said he intends to do.

Ramifications

Nathan Smith, who campaigned for Senior as she unseated incumbent James Walker last year, attended Monday night's meeting and notified the board about the violation.

"I am actually planning on speaking with my attorney and getting advice on whether or not to move forward with an official complaint," said Smith, manager of a local finance company.

Smith said it was painful to feel compelled to blow the whistle on a public official he supported.

"It's never easy once you invest your time and effort to support somebody," Smith said. "… Ultimately, it's my responsibility as a citizen to put myself out there. There are those who take to the Ledger-Enquirer website and use handles and aliases. But that doesn't do a whole lot to change policy. It takes concerned citizens showing up and speaking out and holding elected officials accountable."

Senior's vote didn't make a difference in her daughter or the other employees being hired or in any of the other consent agenda items being approved. The vote was 9-0.

It's also debatable whether any of the personnel votes on the consent agenda matter at any meeting. If the employees already are working in the school district, why is the board asked to approve them?

"I don't know," said Kathy Tessin, the district's human resources chief. "Good question."

Tessin has worked in the district's human resources department for 10 years and became chief earlier this year. She said this incident is a good opportunity to review the approval process for new hires.

Palm and Tessin said it's common for school districts, especially in large systems, to allow new employees to start working before the board approves their hiring.

"When you start thinking of logistics," Palm said, "if they had to have a board meeting every time the superintendent needed to hire somebody, they would have very frequent board meetings."

The responsibility for the violation rests with the board member who should have recused herself, Palm said, but any of the other officials involved could have been aware of the conflict and prevented the violation, she said.

The Muscogee County School Board does have a history of properly following the recusal requirement: District 2 representative John Wells and former board members Philip Schley and Fife Whiteside have recused themselves from votes involving relatives who are school district employees.

The GSBA isn't a regulatory agency, so state law allows the local board itself to decide whether any sanctions are appropriate. Muscogee County School Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 said Senior's oversight doesn't warrant any sanction.

"Give her some grace and forgive her," he said.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

Georgia Code 20-2-58.1:

(a) As used in this Code section, the term "immediate family" means a spouse, child, sibling, or parent or the spouse of a child, sibling, or parent.

(b) No local board of education shall employ or promote any person who is a member of the immediate family of any board member unless a public, recorded vote is taken on such employment or promotion as a separate matter from any other personnel matter. Any board member whose immediate family member is being considered for employment shall not vote on such employment. Nothing in this Code section shall affect the employment of any person who is employed by a local school system on July 1, 2000, or who is employed by a local school system when an immediate family member becomes a member of the local board of education for that school system.

Georgia Code 20-2-63:

(b) Upon a motion supported by a two-thirds' vote, a local board of education may choose to conduct a hearing concerning the violation by a local board of education member of any conflict of interest provision in subsection (a) of this Code section. The local board of education member accused of violating said provision shall have 30 days' notice prior to a hearing on the matter. Said accused member may bring witnesses on his or her behalf, and the local board of education may call witnesses to inquire into the matter. If it is found by a vote of two-thirds of all the members of the board that the accused member has violated a conflict of interest provision contained in subsection (a) of this Code section, the local board shall determine an appropriate sanction. A board member subject to sanction pursuant to this Code section may, within 30 days of such sanction vote, appeal such decision to the State Board of Education, which shall be empowered to affirm or reverse the decision to sanction such board member. The State Board of Education shall promulgate rules governing such appeal process. This subsection shall apply only to local board of education members elected or appointed on or after July 1, 2010.

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