DeKalb schools settle suit with employee who spoke out at board meeting

James Crowe claimed publicly that his pending termination by the DeKalb County school system would cost taxpayers money.

The former graphics department chief was right, but probably not in the way he imagined. DeKalb this week agreed to pay $300,000 to settle the lawsuit he brought after his job was eliminated in 2009 and he wasn’t picked to fill another one like it created afterward.

Crowe alleged he was the victim of retaliation by former superintendent Crawford Lewis because he spoke out at a school board meeting against what he claimed was an expensive plan to eliminate his department. Crowe’s lawsuit alleged Lewis was “outraged” by his remarks and threatened to fire him.

On Tuesday, the sides agreed in federal court to dismiss the case. That agreement was finalized a day after the school board voted 6-2 to settle. Crowe had alleged that his free speech right was violated.

“I think the fact that the school system settled showed there may have been some merit to the allegations,” said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, an employee association.

However, school board chairman Eugene Walker said he voted to settle merely to avoid paying more attorney fees. “You’ve got to know when to fold them,” he said.

Lawyers for both sides refused to comment and Crowe couldn’t be reached.

The school system was in retreat after a judge decided in May against a DeKalb motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

DeKalb claimed that Crowe spoke to the school board in his official capacity as graphic art supervisor and that his speech was therefore not protected, but U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr. decided that argument was “far fetched” and that it was “reasonable” to infer that Crowe suffered from retaliation.

Crowe’s comments may have been self-serving, the judge wrote, but Crowe was addressing an issue of public concern when he told the board that elimination of his department and outsourcing of the work would ultimately cost taxpayers more.

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