The daunting pitfalls in Deal’s DeKalb intervention

Moments before Gov. Nathan Deal announced one of the most difficult decisions since taking office, he hurriedly huddled with DeKalb lawmakers and warned them what was coming. The path he took to get there will help define his time in the governor’s mansion.

As Deal wrestled with the decision to suspend two-thirds of DeKalb’s school board, he met with the county’s divided delegation, ordered his staff to hash out a compromise that could avert a legal fight and, when that failed, listened to Superintendent Michael Thurmond’s last-ditch attempt to change his mind.

With this week’s order by a federal judge allowing Deal’s intervention to go forward, the decision’s ripple effects could echo far beyond DeKalb.

Now a governor who backs more local control for schools faces criticism over ousting leaders of the state’s third-largest school system. A legal battle that could determine the executive branch’s power to reshape struggling school districts looms large. And a Republican administration must tap new leaders in one of the state’s Democratic bastions.

“This part may present more political risk for Deal than his initial decision to suspend the board members,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “Now he owns responsibility for who is put on the board. He’s got to make sure the people who are picked are individuals who can be viewed by the public as capable and competent. He’s got to tread very, very carefully.

State economy a worry

DeKalb’s board has been plagued by infighting for years, but the turmoil ratcheted up in December when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the district on probation. In a scathing report, the powerful accrediting agency found evidence of nepotism, financial mismanagement and general malaise.

The dilemma landed in Deal’s office last month when the state Board of Education recommended the suspension of six of the nine DeKalb members after a grueling 14-hour hearing. He mulled the decision for several days as his aides sought a compromise that would stave off a drawn-out court battle.

One of the plans proposed would have involved a swap of sorts: the resignation of former board chairman Eugene Walker and another suspended board member in exchange for the restoration of four other board members. But it never gained traction as Walker railed against the governor’s powers and refused to abandon his legal case.

“I’m not stepping down because I have not broken the law. I’ve done nothing wrong,” he told the AJC. “And I’m not having it on my record that I did something to be removed from office.”

Deal is wary at the prospect of using his political capital in local issues. For instance, he decided against suspending Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill, who was elected despite facing dozens of felony charges. He also punted the messy debate over a $1 billion Falcons stadium to the city of Atlanta, leading Mayor Kasim Reed to thank him last week for “honoring a very conservative value of allowing local folks to govern local affairs.”

So why is DeKalb different? The governor and his allies view the county’s education struggles as a brewing catastrophe that could stain the reputation of the rest of metro Atlanta, scaring businesses from moving to the region and dragging down the state’s economic engine.

“The main purpose of getting an education is getting a job, hopefully a good job and hopefully here in Georgia,” said Deal, who added: “When something is said in a negative connotation about education in any school system in Georgia, it affects everybody.”

The suspension was celebrated by parents and many members of DeKalb’s largely Democratic delegation, who said they were fed up with the board’s dysfunction.

“We are so headed down the path of failure, and it would be so bad for the Atlanta area, that I think he had to take a risk,” said Jeanie Rosenblum, who has two children in DeKalb schools.

But even some supporters were uneasy at the impending ouster of duly elected officials and what might be seen as the disenfranchisement of vast swaths of the county.

“Something needed to happen, but I have some heartburn about the governor’s intervention,” said state Rep. Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta. “Now, we’ll have to see how this process turns out.

Legal, political issues

Ahead is a minefield of potential pitfalls. Deal tapped a five-member panel to vet candidates for the six board seats, and more than 400 people - including some from beyond the county’s borders - put their names up for consideration. The panel will weigh each candidates’ background, educational expertise and resume. Race will also be a factor as five of the six suspended members are black.

Still looming is a greater legal fight over the governor’s powers to rein in wayward school boards. U.S. District Judge Richard Story’s ruling last week allowed Deal to replace the board members with hand-picked successors, but signaled that the Georgia Supreme Court should consider the 2011 law that empowers Deal to intervene if a district faces losing accreditation. This week, lawyers from both sides are expected to crystallize the questions the state’s top court will address.

“The ultimate issue that the court will have to address is whether the statute giving the governor power to suspend school board members – and entire boards – violates the state constitution, which provides for elected school board members,” said Alexa Ross, an education law expert.

Veteran court watcher Ronald Carlson said the outcome is far from certain, since a local state judge sided with another school board in a similar case. There’s also little precedent that could guide the court, so the seven justices will tread fresh legal ground, said Carlson, an emeritus law professor at the University of Georgia.

What’s fast becoming clear is that DeKalb’s dilemma will also shape broader legislative efforts aimed at giving communities more control of their school districts - and new state powers to rein them in when they stray. Deal, for one, has groused that the law allows state intervention based on governance problems and not academic progress.

Balancing those competing themes - local control and more state power to intervene - will be a focus of next year’s legislative session.

Those mixed messages only frustrate some school advocates. Nancy Jester, one of the six suspended DeKalb school board members, said local control of schools is all but a farce.

“What I would love to see is if Governor Deal made a commitment to saying we need reformation that puts more power into the hands of the school community and away from a centralized district,” she said. “Anything that puts the control of schools closer and closer and closer into smaller units, I support.”

On Thursday, as lawmakers scrambled upstairs to debate dozens of legislative proposals, Deal sat in a basement conference room to address the worries of a handful of DeKalb County students. One question in particular, from a Clarkston High School student named Alix Garcia, hit at the heart of the concerns.

“If accreditation is lost in DeKalb County,” he asked, “will I be able to get into college?”

Questions like these are now Deal’s to worry over as he puts his stamp on DeKalb’s educational system. And as Thurmond, the superintendent, put it, there can be only one answer:

“Failure is not an option,” he said. “We will not lose accreditation.”

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Staff writers Nancy Badertscher and Ty Tagami contributed to this story.