Pushback over Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision to suspend two-thirds of the DeKalb County school board was intensifying as state negotiators worked behind-the-scenes to avert a Friday showdown in federal court over the move.
Several DeKalb lawmakers on Thursday called for tighter restrictions on the governor’s power to suspend and remove members of school boards at risk of losing accreditation. The 2011 law that gives Deal the authority to do that is the subject of a federal lawsuit set to be heard in court Friday.
Deal told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his office was continuing to hash out an agreement that would resolve the lawsuit out of court, even as the main DeKalb plaintiff vowed to continue fighting.
The compromise could involve several board members resigning rather than facing a removal process that could take months. But Eugene Walker, the former DeKalb school board chairman, said he’s looking forward to his day in court and that he expected the other five suspended board members to fight on, too.
“Why would they resign?” said Walker, the only named plaintiff in the lawsuit. “If they did it would shock me.”
Deal announced Monday he would suspend six of DeKalb’s nine school board members, saying it would prevent the board from slipping into more dysfunction. The district is at risk of losing its accreditation after a December report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools cited abusive behavior and questioned financial decisions by the members.
A drawn-out legal fight could have its own consequences. The board’s three remaining members don’t have a legal quorum to make decisions for the district’s nearly 100,000 students. Deal could eventually appoint replacements, but the process to remove the suspended board members takes two to five months. Interim superintendent Michael Thurmond has said it would be destabilizing to simultaneously have appointed and suspended but unremoved board members.
Adding to the complications is a DeKalb policy that says the local school board, by majority vote, should fill any vacancy that occurs at least 90 days before a general election. If any members resigned and the lawsuit succeeded, then the remaining members would have a hand in picking successors. That may weigh on the minds of the historically fractious board.
School board member Pam Speaks said at a state hearing last week that she would resign rather than fight for her seat. Nancy Jester and Donna Edler have expressed uncertainty when contacted by the AJC. The other suspended board members — Sarah Copelin-Wood and Jesse “Jay” Cunningham — could not be reached for comment.
Some DeKalb lawmakers, frustrated by what they see as an overreach by the executive branch, are pushing to rein in Deal’s powers. State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, said she was mulling legislation that would allow the governor to replace school board members only after collecting signatures from voters in their districts for a recall.
“I just want people to calm down and take a look at the other side,” said Kendrick, who warned that voters could be “usurped” by state officials. “Think about what this kind of precedent will shape politics moving forward.”
State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, said the powers lawmakers gave the governor were “intended to be a club that no one would ever use.” Now that he’s used them, Jones said, it’s time to rethink that authority.
“I’m hearing concerns about the process. The governor didn’t put the process in place - the Legislature did,” said Jones, D-Decatur. “And we have the responsibility to rework the bill.”
The governor’s office wouldn’t comment on whether the law needed tweaking, but it said Deal had little choice but to take the one “legal step at his disposal” and suspend DeKalb’s board members.
“While others fight on behalf of the people who brought the school system to the brink, Governor Deal will fight for our children and the home values of residents throughout DeKalb,” said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story is scheduled to hold a 2:30 p.m. hearing to weigh the constitutionality of the law. The challenge claims it gives Deal too much power to oust duly elected politicians, but state attorneys called the claim “meritless” and urged Story to dismiss the complaint.
Some critics on Thursday brought up the specter of race, noting that a Republican governor was removing Democratic members of a majority-black school board in a county that is 55 percent black.
“This process is definitely unconstitutional, violates due process and further disenfranchises African-American voters,” said John Evans, who heads the DeKalb branch of the NAACP.
Walker, who is black, steered clear of the issue. He called the state action to remove most of the elected school board an unconstitutional act of “tyranny.”
“I’m trying to make this bigger than race,” he said. “I’m angry as hell because this is personal. They’re trying to diminish and discredit me, and all I’ve got is my reputation.”
The story so far
December: The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools places DeKalb County’s school system on probation, alleging financial mismanagement, nepotism and meddling by the school board.
Feb. 8: Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson leaves, halfway through her three-year contract, and former state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond is hired as an interim school chief.
Feb. 21: The Georgia Board of Education conducts 14-hour hearing and recommends that Gov. Nathan Deal replace six of the DeKalb board’s nine members.
Monday: Gov. Deal follows the state board’s recommendation and suspends six board members. Three board members who began their terms in January were not included in the suspension, which now faces a legal challenge. A hearing is scheduled for 2:30 today in Federal Court.