Justice approves bill allowing school boards to be removed en masse

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday approved a new law that gives Gov. Nathan Deal the power to suspend the entire Atlanta school board for jeopardizing the city district's accreditation.

With that consent, state school board members will hold a hearing that involves the local nine-member board no later than July 31. They will then make a recommendation to the governor.

Deal does not have to follow the state board's recommendation. But if he suspends local members, Deal will make interim appointments and ousted board members will be allowed to appeal for reinstatement.

"I'm pleased," said House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, who helped write the bill that gave Deal such extraordinary power over the board's future. "Now we can focus on the best needs of the 48,000 children in Atlanta Public Schools."

Board members did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Department of Justice approval of the new law was required because of the potential impact on local elections. Another provision -- which the department also signed off -- would shrink the DeKalb County school board from nine to seven members.

The law, which had bi-partisan backing in the 2012 Legislature, was sparked by infighting among Atlanta board members. The district's accrediting agency placed the board on accredited probation in January. It gave members until Sept. 30 to improve governance or lose accreditation.

The board began to meet at least weekly to work out issues. But when Lindsey and others felt the board moved too slowly, they passed the law setting a July 1 deadline for full accreditation. The city board was never in a position to meet that deadline -- prompting its defenders to cry foul.

Just last week, the Atlanta school board voted to file an objection with the Department of Justice that said the law may interfere with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Several Atlanta lawmakers, including Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, have also threatened to file a federal lawsuit to block Deal from exercising his powers under the new law. Fort said Tuesday that they were consulting attorneys.

Atlanta-area attorney Jerome Lee, who filed an objection with the Department of Justice on behalf of Fort and others, said it was “unfortunate” that officials did not travel to the city to talk with constituents about the law, which affects control of local governing institutions. He noted, however, that the approval allows for further review as necessary.

Removing a board member for something other than moral or criminal reasons, and replacing him or her with a non-minority, would cause the city's black residents to lose influence and representation gained through elections, Lee said. Seven of the Atlanta school board’s nine members are black.

It is not clear Deal wants to get involved. In public remarks two weeks ago, the governor said he would only use the law's power with great reluctance. His recent political ally, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, pushed for passage of the law but found tepid support for the governor to replace the board.

The board most recently elected new leaders who immediately won a pledge of support from Reed. They also hired as an interim superintendent Erroll Davis, who retires Thursday as University System of Georgia chancellor. Davis the respect of lawmakers such as Lindsey.

The new law applies to school boards in systems that are not fully accredited on July 1. Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state education department, said , barring some major change, two systems -- Atlanta and Coffee County in south Georgia -- are affected.

Brian Robinson, spokesman for Deal, said the Department of Justice approval had been expected.

"The state of Georgia must ensure that students are protected when those elected to make decisions in their best interest fail to do so," Robinson said.