By Tom Doolittle
Kevin Levitas and statewide SB 84, which passed in the General Assembly on March 8. In fact, a detailed review evinces action that is nearly “apples and oranges”. The statewide bill is for standardizing school board “governance”, essentially regulating behavior and roles. Although conflicts of interest are prohibited, they are broadly defined. However, what might interest most DeKalb citizens that have followed media reports is that the bill says nothing about school system employees, such as superintendents. The state bill also does not mandate county-specific ethics commissions, as Levitas does for DeKalb.
Generally, the state bill specifies additional qualifications and training for school board members, clarification of their roles and responsibilities, a statewide conflicts-of-interest policy, and allowing the state to temporarily intervene when a system is failing.
Levitas’ proposal is a “transparency” bill, not broad rules defining the role of school board members. Starkly different from the state bill, Levitas bill emphasizes disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, emphasizes publication and comment periods, but allows the school board to decide whether they should be disallowed where regulating high-level employees. However, like the state act, school board member (in contrast to complaints about employed officials) would the province of a new ethics board.
Levitas, reflecting on the fate of DCSS ethics, commented, “I am optimistic that it will work in DeKalb, but I remain concerned that any non-criminal ethics violations can only be addressed by Board itself, rather than by an independent body… school employees should be covered as well…”
The Levitas proposal, which would have had to be signed by a majority of the DeKalb legislative delegation before moving to a General Assembly vote, is being given no further consideration this year. Before the statewide bill was passed, State Representative Mike Jacobs said that the statewide bill included many of Levitas’ provisions and he was concerned about “singling out DeKalb”. Fran Millar said he would vote “yes” for both of the bills—“I’ll sign (to move the local bill to a vote in the full legislature) it anyway—everybody should have a code of ethics for God’s sake.” Both Millar and Jacobs thought regulating school system employees would be a good idea, but did not seem to consider it a deal breaker if not included in the statewide bill.
Although the Levitas bill is entitled “The DeKalb School Board Transparency Act”, the language states that it “provide(s) for sanctions on appointed officers and employees of the school system for violations.” The sanctions would be meted out by the school board, not an ethics commission. The ethics commission is only charged with regulating school board members. “If the commission determines from clear and convincing evidence presented during the hearing that the accused board member committed the offense of which he or she is accused, the commission shall issue written findings and shall censure or reprimand the board member or order the removal of the board member from office.”
The substantive differences between the statewide and Levitas’ bill include:
(1) Does not establish county school system ethics commissions;
(2) Requires local ethics codes be established and provides minimum standards for codes;
(3) Makes allowance for and determines conditions for intervention by the Governor’s office;
(4) Is not as specific with respect to conflicts of interest;
(5) Is not primarily disclosure and transparency legislation with respect to conflicts of interest.
Regarding the effect that his legislation would have on employees in a position to hire relatives and steer contracts to friends or misdirect funds, Levitas said, “it is premature to comment on the situations involving Ms. Pope or Dr. Lewis, but should the evidence prove the existence of criminal and/or ethical lapses, it would, in my opinion, strengthen the argument that ethics laws and boards should reach employees as well as elected officials.”