Judge: Don’t reinstate 2 suspended from DeKalb school board

It’s not over yet, but the process for removing DeKalb County school board members took a significant step Wednesday with the revelation that a judge believes two suspended members failed to make a case for reinstatement.

According to Gov. Nathan Deal’s office, an administrative law judge has recommended sustaining two of the suspensions Deal issued against six DeKalb board members in February. One of the six, Nancy Jester, is already off the board because she chose not to appeal Deal’s decision. The rulings for the other three are pending.

Judge Maxwell Wood ruled that Sarah Copelin-Wood and Pam Speaks “failed to show that their presence on the DeKalb school board would improve the ability of the local school system to retain or re-attain its accreditation,” according to the governor’s office.

Speaks and Copelin-Wood argued in Judge Wood’s courtroom (no relation) at the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings last month that they had done nothing wrong and that there were few, if any, specific charges against them individually that they could rebut.

Wood based his decision on the dictates of the law, which says board members suspended over accreditation issues should only be reinstated if they show their presence would “more likely than not” improve the school system’s ability to regain full accreditation.

The suspensions were triggered by the private agency that offers DeKalb accreditation, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The law says the governor can remove school boards in districts on probation if the state school board recommends it. SACS put Georgia’s third-largest school district on probation in December, alleging financial mismanagement, nepotism and meddling in administrative matters. The Georgia Board of Education then held hearings and recommended removal of two-thirds of the board.

Deal agreed with that recommendation, suspending the board and appointing replacements. Five of the suspended board members asked the governor to reconsider, which he must do under the law. The governor sent their cases to the administrative judge, who is expected to issue each of his recommendations within 30 business days of the hearings.

Speaks and Copelin-Wood had their hearings in mid-June. Now the judge must rule on Eugene Walker, whose hearing was June 26, and on Jesse “Jay” Cunningham and Donna Edler, whose hearings were last week.

Copelin-Wood had no immediate comment Wednesday, but Speaks said she expected the ruling would go against her. She said the burden of proof set by the “more likely than not” language in the law is unfair.

“I don’t see how you could prove that,” she said. “It is an effort in futility.”

The law basically requires the judge and the governor to predict how SACS would react if one board member or another were reinstated.

SACS left little room for guesswork. Agency officials including Mark Elgart, the president and chief executive officer of SACS parent company AdvancED, testified that DeKalb had a better chance for full accreditation under the board appointed by Deal.

Elgart’s testimony in Speaks’ hearing on June 13 prompted a backlash in the hallway outside the courtroom. Speaks said after the hearing that Elgart had always told her she was an asset on the board. “He stuck the knife in my back. That’s how I feel about that,” she said of his testimony.

Judge Wood’s rulings are merely recommendations to the governor. Deal’s office did not respond when asked when the governor will decide the fate of Speaks and Copelin-Wood.

If Deal does not undo the suspensions, the affected board members will be permanently removed, and their replacements — appointed by Deal in March — will hold their seats.

Deal’s decisions may not matter in the long run, though. Walker has a lawsuit before the Georgia Supreme Court that contends the law used by the governor to suspend him is unconstitutional. A ruling is expected by fall, and if the court strikes down the law, then all the suspended board members could be restored to the seats that voters elected them to hold.

Ernest Brown, one of two parents interviewed by SACS for the report that led to the agency’s probation decision, said many in his part of south DeKalb have tuned out the controversy.

“I think fatigue has set in with so many people, and they just want to move on,” he said. “They want to focus more on what’s going on in the classroom than in the courtroom.”