Battle escalates over suspension of Ga. school board members

Battle Escalates Over Suspension of Ga. School Board Members

New America Media

By Stan Washington

ATLANTA — After reviewing a recommendation by the Georgia Board of Education and meeting with the state delegation from DeKalb County, Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday said he would sign an order suspending six of the nine members on the DeKalb School Board.

“This is a matter of concern to all of us, especially the parents and the students of the DeKalb County School System,” Deal said during a news conference at the state capitol. “The stakes are indeed high. The future of almost 100,000 students who are in the DeKalb County School System is indeed something we cannot take lightly.”

The governor’s decision will not go into effect, however, until after a state court hearing on Thursday and a federal court hearing Friday on the constitutionality of a 2010 law that grants the governor the power to remove board members from school districts facing a potential loss of accreditation.

DeKalb County School Disrtrict was put on notice in 2012 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), a private accreditation agency, for financial mismanagement and ethical violations. Over 70 percent of students in the district are African American.

U.S. District Judge Richard Story issued an order on Sunday prohibiting any action on the matter. If the court rules in favor of the law, the affected members will have to wait 30 days before they can appeal for reinstatement.

The school board’s troubles escalated after the December review by the SACS, a reputation damaging 20-page report that put the board on probation and said unless corrective measures were taken, the school system could lose its accreditation.

The governor’s office also received 1,200 signatures from DeKalb residents urging the removal of the board.

Since that time, the district has released a superintendent and hired former state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond as the interim superintendent, while former board chairman Eugene Walker resigned but retained his seat on the board.

Walker told reporters last week that if Deal removed them he would appeal to be re-instated. “I was elected by the people, but I worked for God … I’m not going to surrender to a political lynching by a kangaroo court.”

In the meantime, Deal is appointing a nominating committee to recommend replacement board members for those ordered removed.

The governor has also appointed Brad Bryant as the liaison between his office, the board and the state Board of Education. Bryant currently serves as the executive director of the Georgia Foundation for Education for the Georgia Department of Education. He previously served as the department’s general counsel. In 2010 he was appointed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue as state superintendent of schools to fill the unexpired term of the outgoing superintendent.

The now board-in-limbo held its final meeting Monday morning. Board member Nancy Jester, who said she alerted SACS to the problems of the board, told reporters after the meeting that she was willing to step aside but fears, “If one person does it but others don’t then you just leave your constituents without a voice.”

Jester is one of the six members that Deal is recommending be removed.

Members of a DeKalb state delegation who spoke with Deal prior to his decision admitted they were not happy the situation had devolved to the point of removing board members. They also questioned the legality of the governor’s actions.

State Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) said he is confident in his board representatives, Dr. Pam Speaks and Dr. Melvin Johnson, adding he is less concerned about the personalities than about the process.

“There are some legal issues that need to be worked out. If this [law] meets constitutional muster than maybe we should institute it for governors, legislators, county commissioners, city council people as well,” said Mitchell.

“In the SACS report never was there a question about the quality of instruction. We are talking about management issues,” he added.

The 2010 bill granting the governor power to remove board members was passed in 2010 and revised in 2011. It was introduced after the Clayton County School Board (just south of Atlanta) was put on probation. The district later lost its accreditation.

The DeKalb School Board met with the state board for 14 hours last week to address the issues raised in the SACS report. Following the meeting the state board recommended to the governor that six of the members be removed. The other three members were only elected last month.

There are two bills circulating in the state House that would grant two predominately white northern DeKalb cities the authority to form their own school districts. The DeKalb School System is the state’s third largest system. The northern part of the county is predominately white while the southern part is predominately black.