DeKalb school board members formally removed, as eyes turn to Supreme Court

The DeKalb County school board members suspended when the district they oversaw nearly lost its accreditation are all out of office now.

Gov. Nathan Deal ousted them Friday at the recommendation of an administrative law judge who reviewed five board members’ cases.

“They’re removed,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said, after releasing Judge Maxwell Wood’s decision upholding the suspensions previously issued by Deal. A sixth board member didn’t appeal her suspension, and was previously removed from office.

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The Georgia Supreme Court is expected to rule this fall on a constitutional challenge to the law that authorized Deal’s action. The law allows governors to remove school boards in districts on probation.

Wood was tasked with determining whether the five who did appeal would “more likely than not” improve the district’s accreditation were they to be reinstated.

Officials from the private agency that gives DeKalb its accreditation testified in Wood’s courtroom that the five would not. That made Friday’s announcement somewhat predictable, since Deal removed them using that same criteria.

“That is the reason they were taken off in the first place,” said Paula Caldarella, a Dunwoody parent who has followed the process.

Caldarella, who publishes a blog called Dunwoody School Daze, hears from a lot of parents and predicted that the removals will be popular.

“Now,” she said, “we’re waiting on the Supreme Court decision.”

The governor suspended the board members after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, citing school board mismanagement and other problems, placed DeKalb on probation in December. The agency said the district was at risk of losing accreditation.

Wood heard testimony both from SACS officials and from witnesses who praised the school board members. In late July he recommended denying reinstatement for Pam Speaks and Sarah Copelin-Wood. Friday’s announcement concerned Eugene Walker, Jesse “Jay” Cunningham and Donna Edler, though it was the first time Deal said he was acting on all five recommendations.

“We see it as final,” Robinson said.

The suspended member who didn’t seek reinstatement was Nancy Jester.

Walker, the former school board chair who sued over the suspensions, said he was “really disappointed but not surprised.” He said the judge was bound by a law that establishes an “impossible” burden of proof on suspended school board members. They have to somehow show they can regain accreditation when the accreditation agency is saying they can’t, he said.

“I’m just hopeful that the Supreme Court will uphold the law, and the law is that elected officials are supposed to serve out their term unless they break the law or are recalled,” Walker said. He said he’d done nothing illegal and that the action by the governor was informed by “innuendo and rumors” used by SACS in its accreditation decision.

At the state Capitol, some saw Friday’s decision as a boost in confidence for DeKalb, where six school board members appointed by Deal are working side-by-side with three recently elected members.

“This closes the chapter on the process and eliminates the uncertainty,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a DeKalb Democrat. “Now the new school board can move forward and continue its work.”

But Deal’s appointment of the new members has generated some resentment, and with a major court decision pending the future is far from certain.

“I don’t necessarily disagree with him removing them,” said Janaiha Ellis, a parent in south DeKalb. “I disagree with him being able to appoint whomever he chooses, without the parents having a say.”

Caldarella, the Dunwoody blogger, has a rising senior in the school system and said she is “nervous” about the girl’s prospects should DeKalb suffer the “stain” of accreditation loss. She fears that could happen if the Supreme Court rules the law unconstitutional and reinstates the removed board members.

“We’re in a time where there are parents who need to be worried,” she said. “I’m one of them.”

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