Sarah Copelin-Wood, one of the DeKalb County school board members suspended by Gov. Nathan Deal, said she should be reinstated because she was “duly elected” by people in her part of south DeKalb.
“The outcry was not from my district,” she testified Tuesday before Judge Maxwell Wood of the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings. “The people that I work with, the people that I live with, they support me.”
She was alluding to the public outcry against the school board that triggered an investigation last year by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. That visit landed DeKalb on accreditation probation, and led Deal to act.
Mark Elgart, head of SACS, took the stand and said the ability to represent the needs of students, and not the will of voters, should determine who gets to run school districts. “School boards are not a legislative body,” he said. “You’re not there to represent the constituents who voted you into office.”
Copelin-Wood is among six DeKalb board members who were suspended by Deal early this year, and she is among five asking the governor to reconsider his decision. Last week, Pam Speaks pleaded her case before Judge Wood, who will issue an “advisory” opinion to Deal. It’ll be Eugene Walker’s turn next week. And in mid-July, Donna Edler and Jesse “Jay” Cunningham will get their turns.
Only Nancy Jester declined to seek reinstatement and is now formally removed from the board. The rest will continue drawing paychecks — they get $18,000 a year — until their status is settled.
The disagreement over who has authority to run Georgia’s school systems is also being hashed out in the Georgia Supreme Court. Walker, one of those suspended by Deal, is behind a lawsuit that challenges the governor’s authority to remove local school board members. Walker got a recent hearing before the state’s high court, which could moot — or sustain — the results of the administrative hearings.
According to the law that Walker is challenging, Deal only has to restore the board members if he thinks their presence is “more likely than not” to improve the school district’s odds of retaining accreditation.
SACS placed DeKalb on probation in December, warning it might strip accreditation altogether if DeKalb failed to address concerns, including financial mismanagement, nepotism and administrative meddling.
Tuesday, Copelin-Wood and her lawyer argued there was no evidence she’d done anything wrong. Indeed her name does not appear in the investigative report SACS released to explain its probation decision.
But Elgart testified that Copelin-Wood and her fellow board members had failed to do “anything” to address his agency’s concerns.
When Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo asked him whether DeKalb’s accreditation would benefit from the reinstatement of Copelin-Wood, Elgart replied with one word: “No.”
Ramona Tyson, the administrator now in charge of addressing SACS’ concerns, testified that the district did not commit fully to addressing the SACS issues until interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond was hired by Copelin-Wood and the other board members in February. Tyson said the former superintendent, Cheryl Atkinson, never issued a mandate to get started. “Mr. Thurmond was the only superintendent who gave me the authority to begin the work,” she said.
Pending reinstatement hearings for suspended DeKalb school board members.
June 26: Eugene Walker.
July 15: Jesse Cunningham.
July 16: Donna Edler.
ACCREDITATION CRISIS TIMELINE
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-July 16: Reinstatement hearings for five suspended board members.
November: Deadline for Georgia Supreme Court decision in the Walker lawsuit.