In a hearing Thursday, one of five DeKalb County school board members facing removal will ask an administrative judge to let her keep the seat voters gave her.
Pam Speaks will argue why she should remain on the board, after Gov. Nathan Deal suspended her and five others under a new Georgia law that allows the governor to remove boards in districts threatened with accreditation loss.
One of the six is already out: Nancy Jester of Dunwoody declined to seek reinstatement. Speaks and the rest will continue drawing paychecks from DeKalb until the process at the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings runs its course.
She and the others are expected to argue that their continued service is “more likely than not” to improve the school system’s chances of retaining accreditation. That is the criteria the new law provides for determining whether to remove board members. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed DeKalb on probation in December, alleging mismanagement of finances, political infighting and other problems.
“Our defense is basically that the school board members who were removed were in the process of addressing some of the issues SACS raised,” said Danielle Bess Obiorah, the lawyer for former school board Chairman Eugene Walker, whose hearing is next week. “This school board hired the current superintendent, who is getting good reviews.”
Before their suspensions, Walker and three of those petitioning Deal — Sarah Copelin-Wood, Jesse “Jay” Cunningham and Donna Edler — voted to hire Michael Thurmond. Only Speaks and Jester voted no.
Obiorah also said the financial allegations made by SACS were overblown. She criticized the agency’s report, which listed numerous problems, many springing from political battles between board members who each represent portions of the whole county.
“We have issues with the SACS findings because they are not corroborated and they refer to anonymous sources throughout,” Obiorah said.
SACS head Mark Elgart said the findings were “based on a thorough review of documentation and a comprehensive interview process. Multiple sources provided confirmation of the information contained in the report.” He said Thurmond — and the new school board impaneled by Deal — had made progress on the accreditation concerns, and had made the district “a much more promising place.”
Speaks did not return calls for comment. In April, when she petitioned Deal, she wrote that she ran for office under the slogan “Pam Speaks for the children” and that she had always spoken for all students in the district, not just those in the eastern half of the county that she was elected to represent.
However, recent graduate Drew Schwartz, 17, thinks the school board impaneled by Deal is better. The old board displayed “childlike and ignorant” behavior in public meetings, said Schwartz, who was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Druid Hills High School and oversaw a special report on the accreditation crisis.
He said younger students were scared of what it might mean for their college and scholarship prospects and that their faith in the school system was shaken.
“It doesn’t make sense that you could petition for your job back when you did it horribly,” Schwartz said.
Speaks and the rest are scheduled for hearings before Judge Maxwell Wood, with two more next week and two in mid-July. The school board members petitioned Deal, but he delegated the decision to Wood. This whole process could be moot, though, if the Georgia Supreme Court weighs in on behalf of Walker.
He is pressing a lawsuit that says the law used by Deal is unconstitutional. Obiorah said Walker sought to stay his hearing until after the Supreme Court ruling expected by fall, but the request was denied.
“If they determine it’s not constitutional,” she said, “then this is a waste of resources and time.”
TIMELINE FOR ACCREDITATION CRISIS
December: The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools places the DeKalb County School District on probation.
February: Gov. Nathan Deal announces his suspension of six DeKalb board members, but the DeKalb board has already sued and a federal judge stays his hand.
March: The federal judge allows the suspensions, and asks the Georgia Supreme Court to consider constitutional questions in the lawsuit. Deal appoints six new board members, who quickly vote to remove the school district from the suit.
April: All but one of the suspended board members — Nancy Jester — petition Deal for reinstatement.
June 3: The Georgia Supreme Court hears arguments in the lawsuit against Deal, which survives with suspended board Chairman Eugene Walker as plaintiff.
June 13: Reinstatement hearing for suspended board member Pam Speaks.
June 18: Reinstatement hearing for Sarah Copelin-Wood.
June 19: Reinstatement hearing for Eugene Walker.
July 15: Reinstatement hearing for Jesse “Jay” Cunningham.
July 16: Reinstatement hearing for Donna Edler.
November: Deadline for Georgia Supreme Court decision in the Walker lawsuit.