Former DeKalb Co. school board chief fights for reinstatement

Suspended DeKalb school board member: SACS allegations are based on rumor

Eugene Walker says he did nothing wrong, and contends his accuser is a biased and misleading outfit that made false allegations that cost him his DeKalb County school board seat.

Gov. Nathan Deal suspended Walker and five other elected DeKalb board members based on a report from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools that alleges Walker and the others were so busy fighting each other that they allowed financial mismanagement and nepotism to reign as student achievement waned.

But on Wednesday, Walker’s lawyer, Danielle Bess Obiorah, criticized the accreditation agency’s findings as “vague” and riddled with “rumor,” “innuendo” and anonymous sources who might have had an ax to grind.

Walker and four of the five other suspended board members have asked Deal to reconsider and put them back in power, and each is making his or her case at the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings.

SACS’ opinions about DeKalb’s performance triggered the governor’s action, and throughout Walker’s seven-hour hearing Wednesday, Obiorah elicited testimony suggesting the private agency erred or overstated its claims, including one implying schools didn’t get textbooks that the system borrowed $12 million to buy.

Current and former district administrators testified that the books were, indeed, purchased and delivered, and that SACS never asked them about it while preparing the damning report it released in December. The accreditation agency used that report to justify placing DeKalb on probation, and threatening accreditation loss. That, in turn, caused Deal to act under a new state law that authorizes removal of school boards in districts on probation.

“The evidence in this case is that SACS is biased. Their report cannot be trusted,” Obiorah told Judge Maxwell Wood. “There’s some blatant misleading going on,” she said. “The governor has to decide whether he can trust SACS.”

Lawyers from the Georgia Attorney General’s Office represented the state’s case. They were, in effect, defending the governor’s decision to remove the board, in a hearing before a judge who will make a recommendation to Deal whether he should reconsider his decision.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Russ Willard said SACS was not on trial. “This is an opportunity for Dr. Walker to present evidence of how he can help the school system,” Willard said.

The basis for reinstatement is whether the board member is “more likely than not” to cause the district to retain accreditation. In effect, the governor must guess how SACS would react if he returned Walker and the others to office.

Willard painted Walker as a selfish politician jockeying to get his job — and power — back, but Walker’s lawyer called several witnesses who said that portrait was inaccurate. A current deputy superintendent, a retired superintendent, a former human resources director, a former chief financial officer and two parents all testified that Walker never acted unethically or unprofessionally in their presence.

“Not one time,” said Robert Freeman, the former superintendent for whom the school district administrative offices are named. Freeman hired Walker in the 1980s as a high-level decision maker in charge of personnel, among other things — a position Walker held into the 1990s. Years after leaving that job, Walker, in 2008, was elected to the school board.

The state’s attorneys have made a big issue over a perception of nepotism described by a grand jury and by SACS.

Walker acknowledged that nine of his family members work for the district, but said all were hired before he was elected.

“These rumors are totally unfounded,” Walker said. “These are just rumors I’ve seen in the SACS report and even in the grand jury.”

Mark Elgart, the head of SACS, is expected to testify when Walker’s hearing continues Friday at 10 a.m.

Among SACS’ major complaints is a squandering of money and cutbacks in classroom spending. Walker and another witness suggested this was the fault of the administration, rather than the school board.

Walker testified that the district only encountered financial problems, namely its first deficit in history, after former Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson made hires beyond what the board had budgeted. Former Chief Financial Officer Marcus Turk, replaced by Atkinson, testified to this, too.

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