DeKalb school board fight lands in state Supreme Court

DeKalb school board suspension reaches Georgia Supreme Court

The control of a school system with nearly 100,000 students will hang on the outcome of a 40-minute hearing Monday at the Georgia Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Gov. Nathan Deal and for the former DeKalb County school board chairman he ousted will face off, each getting 20 minutes to argue over the constitutionality of the law that led to the February suspensions of Eugene Walker and five other board members.

Deal appointed six replacements who have been running the system alongside three board members whom he left in place. The intervention elicited minor grumbling about the disenfranchisement of voters, but parents and business leaders seem largely relieved by it.

The new members will remain in office until elections in 2014, unless Deal, or the courts, reverse the ouster.

Walker contends that the Georgia General Assembly overstepped its authority with the law that allows the governor to suspend, and ultimately remove, elected school board members. According to briefs filed by Walker’s lawyer, Thomas Cox, the Georgia Constitution only allows for removal through a recall by voters. Cox further argued that the law violates due process by hinging suspension and reinstatement on the opinion of independent accreditation agencies.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed DeKalb on probation in December, alleging myriad management problems. Under the law, that decision by SACS authorized the Georgia Board of Education and, ultimately, Deal to consider suspension and removal. The criteria in the law: whether the local school board member’s continued service is “more likely than not” to improve the school system’s chances of retaining, or reattaining, accreditation.

“It is this statutory delegation of authority, and deference to the will of a private accrediting agency over the decisions of the voters, which is constitutionally impermissible and should be struck down,” Cox wrote.

The office of Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens countered that the suspension and removal decisions rest ultimately with the governor and that the constitution requires school board members to have certain “qualifications” set by law. In this case, the General Assembly merely added a qualification to other standards, such as residency requirements.

“The ability to maintain accreditation for a school system is a fundamental qualification for those who would control and manage the system,” Stefan Ritter, senior assistant attorney general, wrote in a rebuttal. “It is reasonable to believe that if your conduct will lead to a loss of accreditation you are not qualified to be in this position.”

The DeKalb school district had been threatened with loss of accreditation, but SACS head Mark Elgart recently told the new school board that his agency would likely keep DeKalb on probation when a decision is released in December.

In a parallel process under the law Walker is challenging, he and four of the five other suspended members petitioned Deal for reinstatement. Deal delegated his responsibility for a hearing to the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings. The hearings have been scheduled for mid-June, with Walker’s on June 19.

Only one of the six, Nancy Jester, declined to seek reinstatement, and has been formally removed. But she, like the others, could get her seat back if the state Supreme Court — in a ruling expected by the fall — sides with Walker.

That possibility alarms Dawn Parker, a south DeKalb mother of an elementary school student.

The new school board and superintendent seem dedicated to improving the district, she said. They seem to have made strides with the finances and with some of SACS’ concerns about the old regime, said Parker, who is on the executive committee of the South DeKalb Parent Council. “If that law is repealed and they get their jobs back, then where are we? Right back at square one.”

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