Parents say DeKalb school board member should stay; SACS says go

The judge presiding over the case of suspended DeKalb County school board member Jesse “Jay” Cunningham got two distinct views of the elected official during testimony Monday.

Seven parents and school advocates called to testify by Cunningham said he was always professional and courteous and that they believed he could help restore full accreditation.

But one witness whose opinion probably carries more clout testified that DeKalb would do better if Cunningham and his suspended colleagues remained off the board.

“It’s my opinion that the current board that’s sitting in DeKalb County now gives the school system their best opportunity to regain full accreditation,” said Ken Bergman, chief legal officer for AdvancED, which placed DeKalb on probation in December.

The private agency’s subsidiary, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, determined that school board meddling and mismanagement had affected district performance. AdvancED gave the district a year to address 11 “required actions.”

Like three board members who went before him last month, Cunningham is asking Gov. Nathan Deal to put him back on the school board.

Deal suspended Cunningham and five others under a law that allows the governor to remove board members in school districts at risk of losing accreditation. Deal then handpicked six replacements to work alongside three newly elected members. They constitute the current board that Bergman said is doing a better job than the old board on which Cunningham served.

Only one of the suspended members, Nancy Jester, declined to seek reinstatement and is now formally removed. Cunningham and the others — Donna Edler, Pam Speaks, Eugene Walker and Sarah Copelin-Wood — were told to make their cases to the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings. Edler’s hearing, the final one, is Tuesday.

Cunningham chose to appear without a lawyer Monday and questioned witnesses himself. He called five administrators and seven parents and community members before testifying himself.

DeKalb administrator Ramona Tyson, called by the state, testified that the old board tried to address SACS’ required actions through her, but former superintendent Cheryl Atkinson would not authorize her to get started. Tyson also testified that a nepotism policy desired by SACS was only adopted under the new board.

Judge Maxwell Wood will make recommendations to Deal, who must decide whether each board member is “more likely than not” to improve the district’s chances of restoring full accreditation. That mandate exists under the new law that Deal used to suspend the board, a law that Walker has challenged as unconstitutional. The Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments about it last month, and is expected to issue a ruling this fall.

SACS has alleged the school board was riven by bickering and infighting but did not identify Cunningham specifically. Instead, the agency cited the behavior of anonymous board members. The challenge for Judge Wood is to assess individual culpability or strengths, and the opinion of AdvancED is likely to weigh heavily in the calculation. Still, Cunningham presented a series of parents and community members as character witnesses.

Each offered testimony similar to Reginald Johnson, the director of a community service organization that does work in DeKalb schools. He praised Cunningham for helping to eliminate trailers from a school.

“We just can’t afford to lose him because he’s a hard worker,” Johnson said.

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