Federal judge rules against DeKalb school board

SACS leader speaks on embattled DeKalb school system

The story so far

DeKalb County schools were placed on probation by the accreditation agency SACS.

Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal moved to suspend six of the nine members, as the State Board of Education had recommended the week before. The district had filed a federal lawsuit to block board members’ removal.

Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story denied an injunction that would have prohibited the board members’ suspension from office.

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A federal judge refused to prevent the replacement of six DeKalb County school board members who lost their seats over a threatened loss of accreditation, and now Gov. Nathan Deal must find appointees to mend the torn district.

Deal suspended two-thirds of the DeKalb board last week. The ruling Monday by U.S. District Judge Richard Story allows the governor to name replacements while the lawsuit for control over Georgia’s third largest school system continues, perhaps to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Now the governor is facing pressure from parents, politicians and the public to quickly name successors. With only three members remaining on the school board, the district is all but paralyzed and major financial and personnel decisions are delayed.

“The harm from the loss of accreditation to the school district and the resulting harm to the students in the district are profound,” Story wrote in his decision. “To permit the board members to continue to serve while their individual claims are resolved risks substantial consequences for the school district and its students. The court finds that this risk of harm far outweighs the risks to the board members.”

The lawsuit was filed in the name of former school board chairman Eugene Walker, who vowed to fight on.

“I still think I’m on the right side of history,” said Walker, who was one of six board members Deal suspended last week.

Walker said he’ll be exploring his legal “alternatives.” Besides the court actions, he and the other five suspended members can petition Deal for their jobs back. That process takes two to five months.

Cheryl Edwards, a mother who lives near Stone Mountain, is “disgusted” with the fighting, and with the officials who led DeKalb to the brink of accreditation loss. “Adults who are supposed to be role models for our kids are acting irresponsibly,” said Edwards, whose son attends Stephenson High School. “It never should have gotten to this point.”

The governor said the court’s decision “allows us to take the next steps toward protecting the futures of DeKalb’s students and maintaining the school system’s accreditation.” The focus, Deal said, will now shift to a five-member panel that will suggest replacement board members.

“Time is of the essence because we cannot have this cloud hang over the county or the state,” Deal said.

Walker said Deal can’t do a better job than voters of selecting a board representative for the slice of the county he represents. “How can the governor make a better selection for 70,000 people than they can make for themselves?” Walker said. “That’s not to me what the democratic process is about.”

The decision quickly reverberated around the statehouse, as lawmakers rushed to read and respond to the ruling.

State Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, said he was disappointed in the order and what he called “the usurping of the will of the voters.”

Other DeKalb lawmakers were relieved. “Thank goodness,” said state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven. “I am grateful that the students, parents and taxpayers of DeKalb County now have a clear path forward.”

The judge’s decision does not end the litigation. Story indicated he was dubious about the likelihood that DeKalb would win under their U.S. Constitution argument, but he signaled that the Georgia Supreme Court could soon consider questions in the case. He asked the two sides to agree on which questions, and gave them 10 days to submit them.

“The case as a whole is not going to dry up and blow away at this point, but it will be able to be studied under a less urgent situation,” said Ronald Carlson, an emeritus law professor at the University of Georgia.

DeKalb has argued that a 2011 state law authorizing suspension and removal of school board members in districts on accreditation probation is unconstitutional. After years of nudging, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools finally got DeKalb’s attention in December, placing the system on probation and threatening to strip accreditation altogether.

That led the Georgia Board of Education to act under the new law by recommending suspension of the six board members who were in office last year - three others were newly elected - and resulted in Deal’s decision last week.

In a secret vote, the DeKalb board authorized a suit that named the DeKalb school district and Walker as plaintiffs. The complaint contends that the 2011 law violates federal “due process” protections against removing elected officials. It also alleges violations of state constitutional protections. It claims, for instance, that the 2011 law permits removal of elected board members “without any inquiry” into individual misconduct.

Story wrote that he’d like the state’s top court to address “unsettled” issues. He wrote that the public has an interest in its elected officials being allowed to serve, but said there is “an even greater” public interest at stake in DeKalb: “The interest of the public in a healthy public school system outweighs the interests of board members in serving in their positions.”

Deal is proceeding under the assumption that an appointed school board can save DeKalb’s faltering accreditation. He will be replacing the suspended board members. Last week, he named a panel to collect the names of possible appointees. The panel will collect applications through Wednesday and, he said, “will get to work quickly on filling the open seats so the board can become a functioning body.”

Deal also appointed Robert Brown, a State Transportation Board member, to serve as another liaison to the DeKalb board. Deal already had tapped Brad Bryant, a former superintendent, as a liaison.

Melvin Johnson, the new chairman of the DeKalb school board and one of three members who took office this year, said he appreciated the judge’s “timely” decision.

“It is essential that we have a governing board capable of meeting the needs of our administration, students, parents and taxpayers,” said Johnson, who pledged “full and complete cooperation” with Deal’s nominating panel.

The three present members are too few to meet legally.

“I trust they will work expeditiously to ensure we have a governing board capable of addressing the pressing needs of our school system,” Johnson said.

DeKalb’s accrediting agency said the decision allows the school system to get a board with a focus on students. In lowering DeKalb’s accreditation status, SACS alleged school board mismanagement and languishing student achievement.

Mark Elgart, the president and CEO of SACS parent company AdvancED, said in a written statement Monday that the agency hopes to help DeKalb find its historic place among the highest performing school systems in the southeastern United States. “That was still possible as late as the 1990s, and it’s still possible today,” Elgart said.

Mitchell, the state representative who opposes the suspension, said Judge Story’s decision leaves DeKalb in “limbo.”

“I wish I had confidence this will end the legal matter, but this system is still stuck in legal limbo,” Mitchell said. “I’d love the issue to be resolved, but it’s not.”