Education board negotiating settlement with former school 'turnaround' chief

Eric Thomas, Georgia’s first chief turnaround officer, resigned in January.
Eric Thomas, Georgia’s first chief turnaround officer, resigned in January.

Late cancelation of a Friday meeting to discuss the agreeement leaves the outcome in question

Update: the state Board of Education meeting to discuss a settlement was canceled Friday afternoon.

Georgia’s former school “turnaround” chief who sued the state after his resignation this year is in settlement talks.

The state Board of Education had planned to meet remotely Friday to discuss an end to the lawsuit brought by Eric Thomas, but canceled three hours ahead of the 3:30 p.m. meeting time. Thomas had left his job amid a dispute with the Georgia Department of Education leadership.

He was the first leader of what was billed as a transformative new agency tasked with improving the state’s worst-performing schools. The plan was backed by then-Gov. Nathan Deal, who labeled the schools “chronically failing.” The First Priority Act creating the turnaround office passed the General Assembly with bipartisan backing in 2017.

The new office was made accountable only to the governor-appointed state school board despite the wishes of state school Superintendent Richard Woods. As the elected leader of the state education department, Woods had pressed lawmakers to put the turnaround office under his control.

Deal won that fight.

Woods’ relationship with Deal’s successor, Brian Kemp, has been friendlier, and Thomas’ position looked increasingly tenuous. Last year, he was interviewing for jobs in other states and finally quit without one in January after the education department initiated an audit of his office. (His resignation was, technically, effective May 30, but he left in January and an education department administrator took on his role temporarily.)

Thomas then claimed in a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court in February that the department had orchestrated a "sham" investigation to retaliate against him as part of the tug of war over control of his office.

Prior to the lawsuit, the state Office of Inspector General wrote that Thomas had mismanaged his office and interfered in contracting decisions. Thomas responded that he was confident the inspector general would ultimately find he had followed the rules.

On Thursday, Woods showed the school board a proposed House of Representatives budget that drains the rest of the turnaround office's funding, transfering $700,000 to the education department in fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1. With revenue cuts, its budget would be eliminated.

State lawmakers would have to approve the transfer. They are expected to meet in June to pass a budget.

Thomas could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, and an education department spokesperson had no comment. The department would not release a copy of the proposed settlement agreement, saying it is not a public record while under negotiation.