Move to oust DeKalb board poses legal question

The story so far

Monday, Eugene Walker announced he would give up the board chairmanship, and the board voted to hire a law firm at $150,000 to review the school board's "governance" and recommend changes.

Tuesday, the school district filed a suit to prevent Thursday's hearing by the Georgia Board of Education. A 2011 state law allows the governor to remove boards in school systems on probation, if the state board recommends it. The suit challenges that law.

Wednesday, a judge denied the request to block the state board hearing but scheduled a hearing on DeKalb's suit challenging the state law. The board selected a new chairman, Melvin Johnson, by a 7-2 vote.

Thursday, after a 14-hour hearing, the state board of education recommended that the governor remove six of nine DeKalb school board members from office.

What’s next?

Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to announce his decision whether to suspend six of the nine DeKalb school board members.

Tuesday, a hearing will be held at 10 a.m. in front of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story on the DeKalb school district's federal lawsuit to block school board members' removal.

Thursday, a hearing is scheduled in Fulton County Superior Court. The DeKalb district will ask a judge to consider a restraining order against the state to prevent members' removal.

Nancy T. Jester — District 1 (recommended for suspension)

Board member since 2011; Last elected 2010 with 55 percent of the vote

Job experience: actuarial consultant

Education: bachelor’s degree, economics, The University of Alaska, Fairbanks

District in north DeKalb includes Chamblee and Dunwoody high schools.

Marshall D. Orson — District 2 (Not recommended for suspension)

Board member since 2013; Won with 62 percent of the vote

Job experience: co-founder and partner of consulting firm Melbourne Partners; co-founder and partner, Devonwood Media; Turner Broadcasting, 1989 to 2001; attorney; law clerk.

Education: Law degree and bachelor’s degree, Duke University

District in Druid Hills area includes Cross Keys and Druid Hills high schools.

Sarah Copelin-Wood — District 3 (recommended for suspension)

Board member since 1999; Last elected 2010 with 51 percent of the vote

Education: student at Morris Brown College, working on bachelor’s degree.

District includes Avondale and Cedar Grove high schools

James L. "Jim" McMahan — District 4 (Not recommended for suspension)

Board member since 2013; won with 65 percent of the vote

Job experience: Dean Witter Reynolds Investment Firm, 1985; a short-options margin clerk and licensed, registered investment adviser, 17 years; mortgage professional starting 2002; Amstar Mortgage Network, Marietta

Education: Attended Georgia State University and Wofford College, South Carolina; received high school diploma from, Northside High School, Atlanta Public Schools, 1983.

District includes Lakeside and Tucker high schools.

Jesse Jay Cunningham Jr. — District 5 (recommended for suspension)

Board Member since 2007; Last elected in 2010 with 64 percent of the vote

Job experience: Spent 26 years at various levels of management, including district manager, McDonalds Corp.

Education: Attended Fort Valley State University; graduate of DeKalb County’s Walker High School (now McNair High)

District includes M.L. King Jr., Lithonia, Miller Grove and Southwest DeKalb high schools.

Melvin Johnson — District 6 (Not recommended for suspension)

Elected to the board in 2013; won with 66 percent of the vote

Job experience: Veteran educator with 37-plus years experience in DeKalb, retired 2004.

Education: Bachelor of Science, Fort Valley State; Masters of Education, Educational Specialist, Educational Doctorate, Atlanta University

District in the Stone Mountain area includes Stephenson and Stone Mountain high schools.

Donna G. Edler - District 7 (recommended for suspension)

Board Member since 2011; Last elected 2010 with 72 percent of the vote

Job experience: certified public accountant

Education: Master’s degree in business, University of Wisconsin; bachelor’s degree, accounting and business administration, University of Kansas.

District includes Columbia, Redan and Towers High Schools

Pamela A. Speaks - District 8 (recommended for suspension)

Board member since 2009; Last elected in 2012 with 52 percent of the vote

Job experience: Educator, DeKalb County School System, retired. Previously taught physical education, special education, Brookline and Boston, Mass.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Boston University; Master of Arts, Northeastern; Specialist in Education, Jacksonville State University; Doctorate in Education, Sarasota.

District in north DeKalb includes Stone Mountain and Tucker high schools.

Eugene Walker — District 9 (recommended for suspension)

Member of the board since 2008; Last elected in 2010 with 56 percent of the vote

Job experience: associate superintendent, administration of affirmative development, community and system services, DeKalb County School System, 1989; executive vice president, DeKalb Technical Institute, 1985-89; vice president, personnel and community relations, DeKalb College, 1981-85; professor of history, assistant football and basketball coach, Clark College, 1969; ;history and social studies teacher, head football and basketball coach, Drake High School, Thomaston, Ga., 1958-67.state senator, District 43, 1984 to 1992

Education: Ph.D. in history, Duke University, Durham, N.C., 1978; Masters of Art Degree in History, Atlanta University, 1969; Bachelor of Arts degree, Social Science, Clark College, Atlanta, 1958.

District includes Avondale, Cedar Grove, Columbia, Cross Keys, Druid Hills, M.L. King Jr., Miller Grove, Ronald MicNair Sr., Southwest DeKalb and Towers high schools

An email that DeKalb County school board member Sarah Copelin-Wood sent to a principal in May crystallized for one of her judges what was wrong with the local culture.

Board policy says members can’t ask anything of any school staffer except the superintendent. Copelin-Wood, writing as the longtime president of a community group and not as a school board member, wanted the principal to let her group present scholarship awards at the school. She said she was merely “doing something good for children: We gave away scholarships.”

But Linda Zechmann, one of 11 members of the Georgia Board of Education participating in Thursday’s grilling of the DeKalb school board, was “just shocked” that Copelin-Wood thought it was okay to send the email.

“Ms. Wood, you are certainly clarifying for me that you do not understand the separation of your duties,” Zechmann said.

It may seem a wonky requirement, but the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools says a wall between board members and school staff is essential to a well-run system, and the organization maintains that DeKalb school board members hop over it all the time.

That judgment, among other governance issues, has ignited a constitutional argument.

SACS placed DeKalb on probation last year for governance failures, triggering the removal process that started with Thursday’s hearing. The final decision whether to suspend six of the nine local school board members who were in office last year now falls on Gov. Nathan Deal. He plans an 11 a.m. news conference on the topic Monday.

DeKalb’s accreditation is at risk, and loss of it in Georgia’s third largest school district would have a “devastating impact” on students and local economic development, Deal said in a statement Friday. “Removing elected officials from office is a serious duty, not undertaken lightly,” he said. “That responsibility, however, pales in comparison to the importance of assuring the credibility of students’ education.”

The local board members filed pre-emptive court actions, seeking to restrain the governor. One hearing is scheduled in federal court Tuesday and another in Fulton County Superior Court on Thursday. There was some last-minute legal tussling late Friday afternoon as the DeKalb plaintiffs asked a federal judge to act before Deal does, and state lawyers argued against that request.

Legal experts explained that if Deal pushes out the board members before the courts tie his hands, it’ll be too late to stay his hand.

“It’ll be difficult to get that toothpaste back in the tube,” said Ronald Carlson, an emeritus law professor at the University of Georgia.

The DeKalb board members are challenging the constitutionality of a 2011 law that authorizes the state to remove school board members in districts on probation. Several lawyers said they have an uphill battle.

The courts presume laws are constitutional, the experts said, placing the burden on plaintiffs to prove otherwise. In this case, the judges must weigh the sanctity of the ballot box against the interests of DeKalb’s 99,000 students, said Mel Goldstein, a lawyer with a focus on governmental issues.

“The interest of children being educated … outweighs the interest of any individual board member,” Goldstein said. “So, no, I don’t think they have a good chance of prevailing.”

The DeKalb board believes otherwise.

“The ballot box must be given huge, huge deference in this country,” said its attorney, Bob Wilson, a former prosecutor. “If it is not, we are lost.” Board members and interim superintendent Michael Thurmond predicted more “divisiveness” and “rancor” if the board members are suspended.

“You have to understand that the individuals who voted for me love me,” said Melvin Johnson, one of three new board members, none of whom was recommended for suspension. He said that voter affection applied to his eight colleagues.

That wasn’t so clear on the streets around Southwest DeKalb High School Friday.

“Get rid of them all,” said Don Johnson, a father of two students and a 25-year resident. “The corruption starts at the top. There’s been no transparency and a total waste of tax dollars.”

Faye Granville, who has a granddaughter at the school, said concerns about accreditation have led her and her daughter to get more involved with the system and to demand more accountability.

“I’m not pleased at all with the school board,” Granville said. “We elected these people to run the schools, and they can’t do that. They’re wasting money and there’s absolutely no accountability.”

Some local school members told the state board that they would step aside rather than fight suspension. Others, such as former board chairman Eugene Walker, reserved their right to fight.

If Deal suspends Walker and the other five with pay, they’ll have to wait 30 days for an administrative appeal.

They can try their luck in court, but it’s unclear whether a new school board hand-picked by Deal would continue paying the legal bills.

Thurmond worried that suspension, and the appointment of replacement members, would create political uncertainty.

“I’ll have 15 board members — six appointed, three still serving and six others elected by the people,” he said. “I can manage nine, 15 would be. …”

He didn’t finish that thought, but it was clear enough what he meant.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article