DeKalb school crisis sparks reform effort

As negotiators quietly work to resolve the DeKalb County school board’s lawsuit outside the courtroom, lawmakers began considering legislation on Tuesday to prevent a repeat of at least one of the actions that provoked public outrage.

A bipartisan group is backing a measure that would ban local school boards from using public funds to pay for lawsuits such as the one DeKalb school board members filed last week seeking to block their removal.

And another group of DeKalb lawmakers introduced legislation that would allow Dunwoody to carve out a separate school system for itself.

The efforts are a response to the turmoil at DeKalb’s school board, which has left the state’s third-largest school district in limbo as it struggles to save its accreditation. Gov. Nathan Deal signed an order Monday that would suspend six of the nine members of the school board, though a federal judge ruled that any new members he appoints can’t take their posts until a Friday hearing.

Backers hope the ban on public funds for legal fees could reach a vote this session. It’s sponsored by state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, and backed by House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and other Democrats. Jacobs said it’s designed to cut off public funding for the board’s ongoing lawsuit and prevent other school districts from doing the same if their boards face suspension.

“School board members are welcome to use their own funds or raise private money for a lawsuit,” he said. “But it’s a problem when money that could be used in the classroom is used for litigation over what appears to be a personal power struggle for school board members.”

It’s unclear how much the DeKalb system is spending to pursue the legal challenge, which targets the 2011 law empowering Deal to remove school board members of districts at risk of losing accreditation.

Board attorney Bob Wilson said Tuesday he withdrew an earlier lawsuit in Fulton County to focus on the federal challenge. Eugene Walker, the former DeKalb board chairman, vowed he won’t abandon the legal fight.

“I will not quit or step aside. Governor Deal is wrong to thumb his nose at the U.S. and state constitutions, and he knows he is wrong,” Walker said in a statement. “I place my faith in God and the voters of DeKalb County, not elitists under the Gold Dome who never set foot east of Moreland Avenue.”

The DeKalb board’s three remaining members don’t have a legal quorum to make decisions for DeKalb’s nearly 100,000 students, and it could take months for any new members Deal appoints to be installed. The federal judge weighing the board’s lawsuit could also reverse or delay Deal’s decision, another reason state officials are holding talks to try to speedily resolve the legal fight.

“It’s still possible that could occur,” Deal said of a compromise.

The bid to allow a Dunwoody school district is more of a long-term play. House Resolution 486, introduced by state Rep. Tom Taylor minutes after Deal’s announcement, would allow any cities created after 2005 to forge their own school districts.

The move would clear the way for Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and other newer cities to create their own education systems if they choose, and would allow groups of neighboring cities to create their own districts.

The number of school systems in Georgia is limited by the state’s constitution, and creating more would require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and support from a majority of voters in a 2014 statewide vote. Taylor, R-Dunwoody, said he’s laying the groundwork for that now.

“We’re in it for the long haul. We know this is a multiyear project, but we’ve got to start the process now,” said Taylor. “People across the county are mad and unsatisfied.”

Both proposals could face complications as legislative leaders work to draft a wider-reaching proposal that could give the state broader powers to rein in poorly performing school districts. Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said he worries lawmakers are taking a piecemeal approach when more comprehensive efforts are needed.

“We have deep concern about picking apart the DeKalb school board piece by piece,” said Henson. “We would like to take a holistic look at the problems. It’s still a solid school system and we need to try to support it and approve it.”

In the meantime, the DeKalb school board remains in political purgatory. In a statement released Tuesday, the three remaining school board members - Melvin Johnson, Jim McMahan and Marshall Orson - said they won’t be able to conduct any business until there’s a decision in the legal matter.

“We will not be satisfied until every decision made by the DeKalb County School District is made on the basis of how it advances our responsibility for student achievement,” the three members said.

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