Gov. Nathan Deal suspended two-thirds of DeKalb County’s school board Monday, plunging the state’s third-largest school district deeper into a leadership limbo as it faces a threat to its accreditation.
Now he will attempt to put the board back together again while dodging legal complications, opposition from some ousted members and the likelihood that the board could be unable to make key decisions for weeks.
The governor said the district’s turmoil was a “matter of grave concern” that compelled him to suspend six of the nine school board members and appoint a nominating committee to replace them.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to act,” Deal said at a news conference at the statehouse, flanked by members of the DeKalb legislative delegation. “Maybe there’s a better way but the reality is this is the only way open to us now.”
The decision was celebrated by many parents and politicians but could inject more turmoil into DeKalb’s crisis.
The board’s three remaining members don’t have a legal quorum to make decisions for the district’s 99,000 students. It could be months until the new members Deal recommends take office. And pending lawsuits could reverse his decision.
“Now the question is: Who is running the DeKalb Board of Education and how long will it be before they can get a legal vote?” said state Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain. “This is a difficult road we are going down.”
The decision came days after the Georgia Board of Education voted unanimously at the end of a grueling 14-hour hearing to recommend suspending the six members. The district is in peril of losing accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which issued a 20-page report in December citing abusive behavior, nepotism and questionable financial decisions by board members.
The school board filed lawsuits last week in state and federal court challenging the 2011 law that empowers Deal to suspend and remove board members. Even if Deal appointed new members, an order over the weekend by U.S. District Judge Richard Story means they could not be sworn in before a hearing in federal court is held Friday.
The governor said he wrestled over the weekend over whether to suspend duly elected officials, knowing he could be accused of overstepping his authority. He ultimately decided he had little choice, and met with interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond and DeKalb’s lawmakers to discuss it with them before his announcement.
“The urgency is this: We don’t need to have this cloud hanging over the students and their parents any longer,” he said. “We didn’t take it lightly.”
Some DeKalb lawmakers pushed for a compromise solution that would allow the governor to tightly monitor the school board if the county abandoned the legal challenges. The governor said a compromise could still be in the works, and other lawmakers said they were hoping a settlement could still be brokered.
“I think that’s certainly possible,” said state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur. “My understanding is that there are discussions that are ongoing about resolving the lawsuits in a way that will allow us to put this part of the process behind us.”
Yet Eugene Walker, the former school board chairman who is one of those pursuing the challenges, left little wiggle room. He vowed Monday to press on with the lawsuits, saying “We’ve done nothing wrong.” He said he might run for another term in 2014 if the courts uphold Deal’s decision, and defended using taxpayer dollars to press his legal claims.
“I’m using public money to help protect the democratic process,” he said. “What price do you put on liberty and justice?”
Other board members faced with suspension seemed torn over whether to step down. Nancy Jester said she feared stepping aside could disenfranchise the voters who elected her.
“I am certainly willing to step down,” Jester said. “My fear is that if one person does it but others don’t, then you just leave your constituents without their voice.”
State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, introduced legislation Monday that could make it harder for DeKalb to press the legal claims. The measure, House Bill 468, would ban local school boards from using public money to pay for most litigation seeking to block school board removals.
In the meantime, DeKalb’s school board could be frozen out of taking any action. County policy requires five board members for an official meeting. Without a legal quorum, the school board cannot hire and fire, amend the budget or change policies, said Clem Doyle, the attorney for the Cobb County school board.
“In theory, the school district could function for several days without a quorum of the board in place, but it could become very disruptive over the course of several weeks,” Doyle said.
Many parents praised the suspensions but expressed frustration that the dispute may stretch for months. Pyper Green, whose daughter attends Southwest DeKalb High School, said the board’s decision to use taxpayer money to fight to keep their jobs cemented her opposition.
“What gives you the right - we’re already in a deficit - to use taxpayer money to keep your job?” she asked. “It was a horrible move: I think that really put the nail in the coffin.”
Stacey Harris, who has a boy and a girl at Austin Elementary in Dunwoody, said the governor should have suspended all nine board members, including the three newest members who were sworn in this year.
“I just feel it’s all or nothing,” Harris said. “I understand they’ve only been on the board since January, but it’s not the board of education minus three.”
Other parents were horrified by Deal’s decision. Tanya Graham, whose daughters attend Arabia Mountain High School, said she would have preferred to see the six board members go on probation. Now she worries Deal will appoint replacements who are unfamiliar with the county’s needs.
“In order to address problems, you have to take time to physically visit and see what’s going on,” said Graham, who is president of the Arabia Mountain High PTSA.
Even if the legal challenges are abandoned or the suspensions are upheld, it could be months until the school board has new members. The six members would be suspended with pay - about $18,000 a year - and must wait 30 days to petition the governor for reinstatement. If they don’t do that within 60 days, they’ll be removed from the board.
Deal must wait 30 days after a petition is filed before holding a hearing on reinstatement. The law allows board members to be in suspension for up to 150 days before a final resolution on their status.
“We’re in a limbo now, and the real wild card now is what the courts do,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “I think those on the school board who want to be reinstated need to get to work right away. Because they have one more bite at the apple.”
Others aren’t as concerned that the DeKalb board may not have voting powers for a while.
“Some of us don’t think that’s a bad thing,” quipped state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody.
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AJC reporter Jim Galloway contributed to this story.