Final hearing in DeKalb school board suspension concludes with conflicting portraits

Donna Edler is a pillar of the community who represented the best interests of students across DeKalb County during her two years on the school board.

Or Edler is a meddling micromanager who set the school district on a path of decline.

A judge must assess those incompatible descriptions to divine the true Edler when he tells Gov. Nathan Deal whether he thinks she should be reinstated to the school board.

Edler was among six board members suspended by Deal last spring after an accreditation agency placed DeKalb on probation in December. She and four others petitioned for reinstatement, which led to days of testimony at the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings. The five hearings last month and this month concluded with Edler’s on Tuesday, and Judge Maxwell Wood said he expects to issue his recommendations within 30 days.

Wood must determine whether each of the five — Edler, Jesse “Jay” Cunningham, Eugene Walker, Sarah Copelin-Wood and Pam Speaks — are “more likely than not” to lead the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to restore DeKalb’s accreditation.

That’s the bar set by the new state law Deal used to suspend the members, a law that Walker has challenged in the Georgia Supreme Court, where a ruling on its constitutionality is expected by the fall.

Only Nancy Jester of Dunwoody declined to seek reinstatement and is now removed from the board. Edler and the other four will also be removed if Deal declines to reverse his decision, whatever Wood recommends.

Edler’s attorney called nine witnesses who testified to her professionalism and said she would not, in their opinion, hurt the system’s chances of regaining accreditation.

Kathryn Rice, a community leader and Edler’s neighbor, said she encouraged Edler to run for the school board after watching her serve on their neighborhood association board.

Like school board meetings, the neighborhood association gatherings could get fractious, “but of all the board members, Donna was always the one who wouldn’t raise her voice,” Rice said, adding that the two had disagreed on some issues. “At one point, Donna and I would have been called enemies, but because of her willingness to listen, we are now close friends.”

Zenda Bowie, who trains school board members on parliamentary procedure, said Edler called her frequently for guidance and seemed committed to following proper school procedures. “I got the feeling that she wanted to understand her role and she wanted to stay in her lane,” said Bowie, a director for the Georgia School Boards Association.

But Ken Bergman, an official with the organization that placed DeKalb on probation, said Edler served on a board that mismanaged the district and is basically guilty by association. Her reinstatement “would not make it more likely” that his agency would restore full accreditation, said Bergman, the chief legal officer of SACS parent company AdvancED. Indeed, he said her presence would make it less likely.

Bergman could produce no specific evidence of wrongdoing by Edler, but SACS produced a report that alleged meddling and other misdeeds by unidentified board members.

“They all are accountable for the actions of the entire board,” Bergman said.

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