Georgia education board reaches settlement with former school turnaround chief

Update: This story has been updated to include additional information from Dr. Eric Thomas about the settlement and his tenure with the Georgia Department of Education.

The Georgia Board of Education settled a nearly yearlong dispute with former chief turnaround officer Eric Thomas in a less than 10-minute meeting Friday afternoon.

The board unanimously approved a statement, read aloud by chairman Scott Sweeney, which says the board decided not to take any disciplinary action after reviewing the January audit of Thomas’ office and his February response, and closed the matter.

“I am pleased this matter has been fairly resolved. As a Georgia native, I remain grateful and humbled to have served our students; specifically, in our most marginalized communities. I wish the Department great success,” Thomas said Friday in an emailed response to AJC questions.

Thomas was hired in 2017 as the first school turnaround officer in order to improve the worst-performing schools in Georgia. His office reported to the state board rather than directly to state superintendent Richard Woods, leading to issues over control of the office.

Thomas’ tenure with the department officially ended at the end of the school year, May 31. He had been away from the department since January. The education department began an internal audit of his office that month. He had already been interviewing for educational leadership jobs in other states.

That audit led to a review by the state Office of Inspector General, which wrote that Thomas had mismanaged his office and interfered in contracting decisions. In February, Thomas filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court denouncing the education department’s investigation of his office as retaliation. He also said he was confident the inspector general would find his office had followed the rules.

Thomas said the Board’s action Friday was part of a broader settlement agreement that will dismiss the lawsuit. That agreement includes a financial settlement. Thomas declined to disclose the amount of the settlement.

“On January 15, 2020, the State Superintendent submitted an internal audit report of the Chief Turnaround Office to the State Board of Education. Dr. Thomas was the Chief Turnaround Officer at the relevant time of this audit. The Board, to which Dr. Thomas reported directly, thoroughly reviewed the audit report and Dr. Thomas’ February 13, 2020 response to the audit report. After such review, the Board took no disciplinary action, and now considers the matter closed,” read Friday’s statement approved by the state school board.

The statement will also be attached to the audit and provided to the Georgia Office of Inspector General.