Eugene Walker says he should be restored to the DeKalb County school board for the children and the more than 40,000 voters who picked him.
But Mark Elgart, the man who oversees the school district’s accreditation, thinks that would be a bad idea.
Lawyers spent more than 10 hours over two days eliciting testimony about Walker from parents and current and former school employees, but it may be Elgart’s opinion that matters most in the end.
Georgia law allows the governor to suspend school boards in districts on probation, and Gov. Nathan Deal used that authority in DeKalb. Walker and four of the other five suspended board members asked Deal to reconsider, and the law says the governor must now ask himself whether he thinks they are “more likely than not” to improve the district’s chances of retaining accreditation.
Even the judge designated to issue a recommendation to Deal acknowledged how confining that criteria is.
“Whether we like the statute or not, we have to live within it,” Judge Maxwell Wood said Friday during proceedings at the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings.
Walker’s lawyer pounded away at the truthfulness and credibility of Elgart and the investigative report his agency, AdvancED, produced before putting DeKalb on accreditation probation in December and triggering suspension by Deal.
Finally, the judge interrupted: “What I am interested in,” he said Friday, “is would the return of Dr. Walker to the board be an asset.”
Elgart testified Wednesday that Walker would not. Then, on Friday, Elgart said he thought Walker would bring instability to a school board that has finally settled into business with the governor’s six new appointees.
Witnesses testified Wednesday to problems with the findings of the AdvancED subsidiary that investigated DeKalb. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools implied that $12 million in textbook money went missing, but current and former school officials said it was fully accounted for. SACS asserted that Walker had micromanaged former Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson when he demanded financial reports she failed to produce, but Walker contended she had violated a disclosure policy and the state did not rebut his assertion.
“Page after page of that SACS report turned out to be blatantly false,” said Walker’s attorney, Danielle Bess Obiorah.
Elgart said the board Walker chaired was divided into quarrelling camps that unraveled over big decisions. He said Walker and the board tarried an “inordinate” amount of time in hiring Atkinson in September 2011. As a result, an interim superintendent ran the district for nearly a year and a half after the termination and indictment in May 2010 of Crawford Lewis “because the three camps could not agree,” he said.
Walker acknowledged the school board quarrelled, but maintained that he and his former colleagues still got work done. When Obiorah asked him if Elgart was right about the camps, Walker elicited giggles from the audience.
“It may have been five or six,” he said.
Board members were riven by race, partisanship and “militants,” Walker said. “The important thing is we took care of school business.”
The board quickly hired interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond after Atkinson resigned this year. When Obiorah asked Elgart if that qualified as a “big” decision, he dodged until Judge Wood made him answer.
“Yes,” Elgart conceded. Elgart also acknowledged that school redistricting and budget cuts — two actions undertaken by Walker and his colleagues amid deep community divisions — qualified as important and difficult.
Ultimately, though, SACS, and Elgart, get to decide whether DeKalb is worthy of full accreditation.
Russ Willard, a senior assistant attorney general representing the state’s case, said Walker’s denials of SACS’ claims proved that he wasn’t serious about responding to the agency’s concerns. The district has until December to address 11 “required actions.” Walker agreed the requirements were legitimate, but Willard said he was disingenuous.
“If you keep saying, ‘We don’t have a problem, it’s all about perception,’ there is a problem,” he said.
Willard said the historic deficit under Walker as chair last year proved one of SACS’ major claims — namely, that fiscal mismanagement, including overspending on lawyers, had undermined the district.
Judge Wood said he hoped to issue a decision within 30 days. It would not be binding: it would merely be a recommendation to Gov. Deal.
Three of five suspended DeKalb County school board members have had reinstatement hearings: Eugene Walker, Sarah Copelin-Wood and Pam Speaks. Only Nancy Jester did not seek reinstatement and is formally removed. The remaining two with appointments before the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings are:
July 15: Jesse “Jay” Cunningham.
July 16: Donna Edler.