Suit pursues DeKalb superintendent’s text messages

Last summer’s budget cuts continue to haunt the DeKalb County school system, with a lawsuit alleging the system violated state law in the way it conducted layoffs and also raising concerns about the superintendent’s text messages.

The suit, filed Monday in DeKalb Superior Court by a former graduation coach, accuses the school system of violating the state open records law in failing to release Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson’s text messages in connection with the case.

Plaintiff Cynthia Gipson’s attorney, Julie Oinonen, wrote that she filed an open records request for Atkinson’s text messages three months ago based upon tips that their contents were relevant to the case. The system still hasn’t produced them, the suit says.

Jeff Dickerson, a spokesman for the district, had no comment Monday, saying neither he, Atkinson nor the system’s chief legal officer, Ron Ramsey, had seen the lawsuit.

The court fight comes after a county school board vote last month authorizing Atkinson to hire independent, outside counsel to represent her. The attorney was to read her text messages, and separate public communications from private, before responding to an open records request, Dickerson said soon after the vote. Only the work-related messages were subject to disclosure, he said.

Former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers was one of the attorneys Atkinson hired. Bowers said Monday that Atkinson sent no public text messages on her personal phone. He said the device was sent to outside technical experts to confirm that. He also said, however, that it’s a new phone. She returned her old phone to the district when it broke, he said. Bowers said that to his knowledge, her old phone was not analyzed for text messages, but said he knows Atkinson sent no public text messages on it.

“She’s told me that she didn’t, and I believe her,” Bowers said.

School board Chairman Eugene Walker also had not seen the suit and was unwilling to comment on it Monday, though he did say he was “confident” the state law on layoffs was followed.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, has watched the developing dispute. He said Monday that he, too, filed an open records request for Atkinson’s text messages several months ago. The chairman of the DeKalb Senate delegation said he was following up on tips that the messages might contain information about questionable use of consultants. He said he filed his request in August and still hasn’t received any text messages.

“I don’t know what they’re hiding, but it seems to be something important enough that if it got out to the public, there would be some repercussions,” Jones said.

An expert on Georgia open records law said recent changes to the law clarified that official electronic communications are subject to disclosure.

“Text messages pertaining to a public agency’s business are subject to release under Georgia’s open records act, just like any other document generated in the course of public business,” Hollie Manheimer, a lawyer who runs the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said in an email.

The employee lawsuit also contends that Ramsey, the school system’s chief legal officer, made a deal with Oinonen: drop the open records request, and the district will reinstate your client and 11 other laid-off employees. Oinonen wrote that she accepted the deal but that DeKalb then reneged. (She also noted she had only four laid-off clients.)

Bowers said he doesn’t know what, if anything, Ramsey promised Oinonen. “But Ms. Atkinson hasn’t authorized any such deal,” he said.

This latest legal contest comes just ahead of a much-awaited decision from an accrediting agency on the school system’s status.

DeKalb is already a step shy of full accreditation, and the agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is wrapping up an investigation into allegations of school board mismanagement that could drop it further. Among the concerns raised by Mark Elgart, president and chief executive officer of SACS’ parent company AdvanceED, is how much DeKalb spends on lawyers.

Oinonen would not comment for this article, but the suit she filed claims her client heard that Atkinson’s text messages contained evidence pertinent to her own job loss. Gipson’s suit claims DeKalb broke the new state law governing public sector layoffs.

The law requires officials to take job performance into consideration when targeting employees for termination. Gipson contends in her lawsuit that DeKalb sidestepped this requirement by eliminating groups of employees then hiring back some regardless of prior performance. The school system has 30 days to respond.

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