DeKalb board withholds report on school purchasing; members clash

The DeKalb County School District is refusing to release an internal report that apparently is critical of its purchasing practices.

The document was discussed during Monday’s DeKalb County Board of Education meeting, producing a heated debate between board member Stan Jester and board Chairman Michael Erwin. Jester referenced the document during a discussion on approving a new armored-car company.

“This is our first procurement agenda item for the day, right?” Jester said. “And this is our first procurement agenda item since that report came out, right? This school district has a history of problems with various corruption, I mean we have people in jail because they weren’t above board with their dealings with vendors. And the procurement … assessment indicates that ethics and integrity are pretty much nonexistent in the school district.”

He was cut off mid-sentence by an employee of the board’s law firm, telling him the document was not a public report.

“Mr. Jester, we’re not going to walk that line,” Erwin interjected.

After the back-and-forth, Jester attempted to get the board to vote to make the assessment public. Nina Gupta, the board’s attorney from the law firm Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough LLP, told him he could not introduce the motion without proper notice.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV both requested the document. The school district denied both.

“Pursuant to attorney client privilege, the procurement assessment document is exempt from public disclosure,” the district responded to the AJC.

The district cited Georgia law that says that public disclosure is not required for communications subject to attorney-client privilege “… provided, however, that this paragraph shall not apply to the factual findings, but shall apply to the legal conclusions, of an attorney conducting an investigation on behalf of an agency so long as such investigation does not pertain to pending or potential litigation, settlement, claims, administrative proceedings, or other judicial actions brought or to be brought by or against the agency or any officer or employee.”

Jester, a frequent critic of district practices since he joined the board in 2015, said he has been arguing for the release of the document behind the scenes with attorneys since mid-December, when board members first received it.

“Procurement practices have been suspect since I came onto the board, with sole-bid contracts and very few bidders and no centralized procurement,” he said. “I’ve been anxious to have a procurement assessment from day one. I think light is the best disinfectant. The more light we shine on this, the more change we will see in procurement practices. This report confirms that ethics and integrity is nonexistent at the school district.”

Erwin, when asked about the exchange, called the report a “high-level legal assessment” not subject to public release. He asked for the assessment in 2018, and said he was hopeful it would have a positive impact on the district.

“The board ordered this legal assessment for the purpose of receiving legal advice to proactively review our processes as part of our commitment towards continuous improvement,” he said. “Legal advice is confidential, and the board as a whole must take action to waive that privilege.”