Suspended school board chairman to keep pushing constitutional fight

A suspended member of the DeKalb County school board plans to keep fighting his ouster and is asking for donations to pay his legal fees.

Eugene Walker, the former board chairman, said he still hopes to get a ruling on the constitutionality of the new law that allowed Gov. Nathan Deal to suspend him and five other board members. Walker and the district filed suit in federal court on Feb. 20. But on Wednesday, the new board voted unanimously to remove the district as a plaintiff, leaving only Walker.

“I can’t afford to do this out of my own pocket,” said Walker, who was suspended Feb. 25. “I’m going to ask people who believe as I do — one person, one vote — to give whatever financial support they can.”

Before Deal replaced two-thirds of the nine-member board, attorney Bob Wilson was hired to represent Walker and the district — and by implication the old school board — in the showdown with the governor and the Georgia Board of Education.

Wilson’s bill for the lawsuit and other services over seven weeks through March 1 came to more than $164,000

Wilson, a former DeKalb district attorney who helped lead a governor’s investigation into test cheating in Atlanta and Dougherty County, said he could not comment about his future role in the DeKalb case “because of ethical considerations.” But Walker said Wilson could not continue representing him because he’s “the school system’s lawyer.” Walker said he is seeking new counsel.

After a hearing in U.S. District Court, the judge asked the Georgia Supreme Court to consider the constitutional questions. The state’s high court docketed the case this week and could take up to six months to issue a decision, though experts don’t expect it to take that long.

The lawsuit contends the Georgia General Assembly handed the governor unconstitutional powers to remove elected school board members. The governor acted under a 2011 law that authorizes intervention in districts placed on probation by their accreditation agency, in this case the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Ronald Carlson, a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia law school, has been watching the lawsuit and said the outcome is uncertain but that he likes the governor’s odds. He said the law likely will be questioned again if applied elsewhere, so “there’s probably a public interest in this case going forward.”

Nancy Jester, a suspended board member, said she is “not interested at all” in a return to the board due to a favorable legal outcome or by petitioning the governor for reinstatement, an avenue open to all six suspended members.

Jester voted against hiring Wilson on the suspension issues and said she will not help pay for the lawsuit. Two of the other suspended board members did not return calls, and two had no comment.

Walker said he’s “not eager” to serve on the school board again either and might retire if he wins.

“I’m not fighting to keep a position on the board,” he said. “My fight is to eliminate what I see as an unconstitutional law.”

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