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Americus board concerned suit may impact accreditation

AMERICUS — The injunction hearing that was scheduled for Friday in U.S. District Court was added to Thursday’s agenda at the Sumter County Board of Education’s regular monthly meeting. Board member Meda Krenson said she was concerned what effect the lawsuit could have on the district’s accreditation from SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) if the injunction is granted and the elections are postponed.

“Perhaps we should come out that we regret this lawsuit,” Krenson proposed.

Board member Carolyn Whitehead spoke up first in disagreement, saying that the lawsuit was not initiated by the board, and she suggested that the board did not need to act on the matter. Board member Alice Green concurred, saying that the board had no power to stop citizens from filing lawsuits.

“We have done everything that SACS has required us to do as a board,” Alice Green said.

As the discussion continued Board member Mike Mock inquired if Superintendent Donnie Smith or Board Chair Edith Ann Green were expected to appear at the hearing. Green said she didn’t know, but said she would check her e-mail. Smith said he was served with a subpoena and would appear in court.

Smith expressed his heartfelt appreciation to Whitehead, who attended her last meeting Thursday. Whitehead chose not to run in the special called election which will be held today. Whitehead’s term expired in 2012, and the special election to fill her and other expired terms will be held today.

Whitehead gave a few parting words, saying “It has been a wonderful journey — my work on the school board,” adding that when she began serving on the board, her son had not started school, but has since graduated from the Sumter system, finished college and earned a master’s degree.

“It has been a wonderful experience for me personally. I always will be around because in my work, you have to advocate for children and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 27 years,” she said.

Whitehead said she is from a large family in Sumter County and there are currently 20 children from her family in the system and for that reason she will remain involved.

“When public education thrives, we are all winners, so that’s what we should be about,” she concluded.

In conducting regular monthly business, the board approved standard financial items and included a separate item — a payment of $3,363 to attorney E. Brian Watkins, the attorney hired when six members of the board challenged state law. The case was later dismissed in Fulton County Superior Court.

A motion was made to approve the item by Board member Willa Fitzpatrick and was seconded by Board member Alice Green. Before the vote Whitehead commented, saying, “Let it be noted that Mr. Smith has the legal position that we can move forward with paying this.”

Board member Mike Busman also commented, saying that he would like to go on record that he believes payment to Watkins would be in violation of state law. Busman referenced O.C.G.A. 20-2-73, which he said was the Georgia law in question.

The law pertains to suspension and removal of local school board members upon potential loss of accreditation, procedures, prohibition on use of public funds for litigation expenses and reimbursement of expenses.

Section F of 20—2-73 states that “a local board of education shall not expend any public funds for attorney’s fees or expenses of litigation relating to proceedings initiated pursuant to this Code section except to the extent such fees and expenses are incurred prior to and throughout the recommendation of the state board …. “

The vote was held and passed 5-3. Board members Green, Fitzpatrick, Whitehead, Michael Lewis and Board Chair Green voted to approve payment while Board members Mock, Krenson and Busman voted against payment. Board member Kelvin Pless was not present.

This is the second time in as many months, the BOE has approved payment to Watkins for his representation of six of the nine Sumter County Board members in the Fulton County Superior Court proceedings. In February, payment of $3,914 was approved 5-2.

A detailed invoice of Watkins’ fees had been requested by Busman before the item was to appear on the February agenda. Whitehead had taken issue with the request, saying that it was unprecedented for any detail “as extensive” to be requested before payment was voted on.