Richard Belcher reports

DeKalb County school board sues to avoid suspension, eliciting outrage from parents and employees

The DeKalb County school district filed a lawsuit Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to derail a process that could unseat all nine members of the school board.

The action, filed in Fulton County Superior Court by an attorney paid with taxpayer funds, elicited outrage from parents and other observers. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order to prevent a hearing by the Georgia Board of Education on Thursday.

The state board could recommend suspension of the DeKalb board, giving Gov. Nathan Deal authority to remove the DeKalb members under the provisions of a 2011 law.

DeKalb’s suit, filed by the district and outgoing school board chairman Eugene Walker, claims the law is unconstitutional because it authorizes removal of local elected officials “without any individualized finding of misconduct.” The law allows the state to unseat board members who preside over districts that an accrediting agency has placed on probation, as happened in DeKalb last year.

Walker did not return a call for comment, and interim DeKalb superintendent Michael Thurmond had no comment about the suit. “This was a board decision,” Thurmond said, referring questions to Walker. Walker announced Monday that he would step aside as chairman and remain on the board.

Deal said litigation may only prolong the pain in DeKalb, Georgia’s third largest school district with nearly 100,000 students.

“The longer this is drawn out, the more protracted it becomes and the more the story becomes one that concerns people everywhere,” Deal said.

The state’s case against the DeKalb board is based on a December report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accused the local board of financial mismanagement, nepotism and other failures of oversight while academic performance languished. The SACS report was based largely on anonymous sources whose claims cannot be independently corroborated. The agency threatened to strip the district of accreditation altogether if the school board fails to address the concerns, and the state is treating the report as evidence.

The lawsuit was filed by Decatur attorney Robert Wilson. He had no comment about the case after arriving at the courthouse Tuesday afternoon to get a court date.

As of the close of business, Judge Kelly Amanda Lee had not scheduled one. It’s unclear if she’ll do so prior to the state board hearing.

Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said the state school board will meet with DeKalb as scheduled at 8 a.m. Thursday, “until we hear otherwise.”

A similar lawsuit filed by a majority of the school board members in Sumter County halted a similar state hearing. Board member Kevin Pless and other unnamed members sued in Fulton Superior Court in November. Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane granted a temporary injunction, ordering the state board not to convene the hearing. The Sumter lawsuit was transferred to Judge Shawn Ellen Lagrua, and no court date is set.

State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, noted that one of SACS’ concerns about DeKalb was excessive legal expenses in a system that ran a $16 million deficit last year. He judged this latest move a “selfish” effort to cling to power.

“I would like to know who voted in favor of this motion because obviously it’s all about them and not about 100,000 children,” said Millar, the former chairman of the Senate education committee. “All this delay does is increase the likelihood of loss of accreditation,” Millar said. “How selfish can people be?”

If there was a public vote, it didn’t occur in public Monday — the most recent open meeting of the DeKalb board. During that meeting, the board voted to go into a private session to discuss an undisclosed legal matter. Thurmond, the former state labor commissioner who has been interim superintendent since early this month, said he knew of no public vote on the suit.

Bill Armstrong, a father of three children in DeKalb schools, called the lawsuit “an outrageous evasion” of the school board’s duty.

“I don’t understand why they all don’t resign,” said Armstrong, of Chamblee. “They are clearly trying to save their jobs instead of the school system.”

Teachers advocate Dave Schutten predicted employee anger over the legal costs. The president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators said teachers haven’t seen pay raises in about half a decade.

“This is crazy,” Schutten said. “People are going to be outraged.”

The DeKalb board voted to hire Wilson and his firm Wilson, Morton & Downs earlier this month. Wilson’s mandate: deal with the state board of education hearing “and/or related proceedings or actions.”

Wilson has a history of public work. He is a former DeKalb district attorney. After leaving office, he helped lead a state investigation that alleged widespread test cheating in Atlanta Public Schools. State taxpayers paid millions for that work. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2011 that Wilson and another lawyer —former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers — billed $2.2 million for about a dozen lawyers on the case for about a year. They all billed at $160 an hour, Bowers said at the time, far below his normal rate of $630 an hour.

Wilson and his associates are to be paid $250 an hour in DeKalb — for a time period that is not limited by the contract. It’s unclear how much the case has cost so far. The district responded earlier this month to an open-records request by the AJC seeking Wilson’s invoices by saying none had been filed.

Allegra Johnson, a mother of three in Dunwoody, said the lawsuit is another diversion of scarce funds from the classroom.

Teacher cutbacks have led to bigger class sizes. Her kindergartner shares a room with 25 other students, and the teacher has no help, other than parent volunteers.

“What will it take to stop this board of education from spending the money that should be spent on children,” Johnson said. “All the money that should be spent on children is being spent on this board.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.