DeKalb school employee drops lawsuit after being rehired

An open records lawsuit filed by a laid-off DeKalb County schools employee was dismissed days after she was rehired by the embattled district, which is already in hot water with its accrediting agency.

The action brought by former graduation coach Cynthia Gipson wound up attracting two high-profile lawyers in Georgia education circles, including a former attorney general, at uncertain cost to taxpayers. It also led to a text message inquiry by the school board with unknown results.

Gipson sued in December, alleging the DeKalb school district violated state law by laying her off without first considering her performance. The lawsuit claimed the proof was in Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson’s text messages, which the lawsuit alleged the district was withholding.

The district and Atkinson — the school board hired an independent lawyer to represent her — denied it, but on Jan. 17 Gipson got a new job as a school social worker. Two days later, her lawsuit was dismissed.

Gipson could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Julie Oinonen, would not comment on her case, but said DeKalb has a history of violating a state law that requires employees to be prioritized during layoffs based on merit.

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Oinonen represented another laid-off DeKalb employee who won his job back based on that argument. A tribunal decided on July 24 that the district did not consider both job performance and professional expertise when it laid off media specialist Benjamin Lynch the previous month.

Oinonen said she believes it was not an isolated incident.

Since there was no settlement of the Gipson case, DeKalb did not formally acknowledge wrongdoing. When asked whether Gipson’s rehiring was connected with the lawsuit, DeKalb schools spokeswoman Lillian Govus said only that Gipson was re-hired “because she was qualified for the position.”

The lawsuit claimed school officials “thwarted” Georgia’s open records law by waiting 50 days to respond to numerous open records requests, including for Atkinson’s text messages.

The district told Oinonen that Atkinson’s personal cellphone did not contain any text messages.

The lawsuit also claimed the district’s chief legal officer, Ron Ramsey, who is also a Democratic state senator from the Decatur area, made an offer from Atkinson to rehire Gipson if Oinonen dropped her open records requests, then withdrew the offer. In court filings, Atkinson denied this and the district claimed ignorance.

The text message kerfuffle caused the school board to hire two well-known attorneys: Mike Bowers, the former Georgia attorney general, and Robert Wilson, the former DeKalb district attorney. The duo were instrumental in producing a 2011 report for the governor’s office that accused Atlanta Public Schools of widespread test cheating.

The DeKalb school board hired Bowers to represent Atkinson, and Wilson to represent the board itself. The district had not responded by Friday to a query Thursday about the taxpayer cost for the two lawyers.

The back and forth over the text messages is in part fueling widespread speculation that Atkinson’s days are numbered at DeKalb. “I can’t say anything about that,” was Atkinson’s response to AJC Get Schooled blogger Maureen Downey when asked if she was leaving the superintendent’s job after 16 months. Board members have also refused to speak publicly about Atkinson’s future.

On Wednesday, the district had this response to a request under the state Open Records Act for copies of text messages, emails and other materials provided to the school board’s lawyers in connection with an investigation stemming from the Gipson case: “The School District will not produce any of the requested records because they are protected by the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine.”

Wilson continued meeting with the school board after the case was settled, and on Friday the board voted 7-1, with one member absent, to hire him for another unusual case.

The board is battling for its political life, and Wilson will represent the nine members at a Feb. 21 hearing before the Georgia Board of Education.

The state board must recommend whether Gov. Nathan Deal should suspend the DeKalb board because of an accreditation issue. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the DeKalb system on probation in December, alleging, essentially, that the local school board is incompetent and destructive. That triggered a state law allowing for removal of the board through the hearing process that is under way.

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