DeKalb schools: Diversity trumps costs

DeKalb school board members admit they voted last year to spend almost $1 million more on attorneys to ensure they had a black female attorney working with them.

Like other area districts, DeKalb solicited bids and selected three finalists: Sutherland, BrockClay and Alexander & Associates.

Despite the first two firms offering to do all of the legal work, some board members advocated hiring two firms – and paying more.

The board voted 5-4 to hire Sutherland and Alexander. Board members Eugene Walker, Jay Cunningham, Jim Redovian, Zepora Roberts and Sarah Copelin-Wood all voted in favor of the additional spending. All are on the ballot in November.

Alexander, which is owned by a black female attorney, was awarded the contract to handle only human resources issues.

The two other firms – which also have African-American, Indian and Hispanic attorneys on staff – offered to do the human resources work for about $500,000 less.

During the heated debate, board member Walker argued that to him diversity is only black and white.

“I am a very, very race-conscious person,” Walker said in October 2009. “I will never ever try to lead you to believe that I am race-neutral. I see color. I appreciate color. I celebrate color and I love color.”

Board member Pamela Speaks, an African-American woman who voted against the measure, said she was disappointed that other board members were pushing her to vote along race lines.

“I will not be bullied into voting by race,” she said during the discussion.

At one point, Don McChesney said he thought the debate violated the Georgia School Boards Association’s ethics policy.

“During our quest to hire legal counsel, the worst of our behavior has emerged. Some of us played the race card,” he said in October 2009. “We attempted to save the taxpayers $1 million. We have those on the board suggest we ignore that fact just so we can have an African-American attorney. I would like them to defend that to the taxpayers.”

This week, some board members told the AJC they were embarrassed by the discussion and hope to make a better decision this year when they select attorneys.

“Diversity is important and DeKalb is a very diverse system, but the question is was this a case of bringing more diversity to the school system or did it just help one specific vendor at the cost of $500,000 more to the taxpayers,” Bowen said Monday.

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