The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that a federal court has refused to prevent the replacement of six DeKalb County school board members who lost their seats over a threatened loss of accreditation, and now Governor Nathan Deal must find appointees to mend the torn district. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story’s ruling allows the governor to name replacements while the lawsuit for control over Georgia’s third largest school system continues.
Having suspended two-thirds of the DeKalb County School Board, Deal is now facing pressure from parents, politicians, and the public to quickly name successors. With only three members remaining on the school board, the district is all but paralyzed and major financial and personnel decisions are delayed.
“The harm from the loss of accreditation to the school district and the resulting harm to the students in the district are profound,” said Judge Story in his decision. “To permit the board members to continue to serve while their individual claims are resolved risks substantial consequences for the school district and its students. The court finds that this risk of harm far outweighs the risks to the board members.”
The lawsuit was filed in the name of former school board chairman Eugene Walker, who vowed to fight on. “I still think I’m on the right side of history,” said Walker, who was one of six board members Deal suspended last week. Walker said he’ll be exploring his legal “alternatives.” Besides the court actions, he and the other five suspended members can petition Deal for their jobs back. That process takes two to five months.
The governor said the court’s decision “allows us to take the next steps toward protecting the futures of DeKalb’s students and maintaining the school system’s accreditation.” The focus, Deal said, will now shift to a five-member panel that will suggest replacement board members. “Time is of the essence because we cannot have this cloud hang over the county or the state,” Deal said.
The judge’s decision does not end the litigation. Judge Story indicated he was dubious about the likelihood that DeKalb would win under their U.S. Constitution argument, but he signaled that the Georgia Supreme Court could soon consider questions in the case. He asked the two sides to agree on which questions, and gave them 10 days to submit them. “The case as a whole is not going to dry up and blow away at this point, but it will be able to be studied under a less urgent situation,” said Ronald Carlson, an emeritus law professor at the University of Georgia.
DeKalb has argued that a 2011 state law authorizing suspension and removal of school board members in districts on accreditation probation is unconstitutional. After years of nudging, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) finally got DeKalb’s attention in December 2012 placing the system on probation and threatening to strip accreditation altogether. That led the Georgia Board of Education to act under the new law by recommending suspension of the six board members who were in office last year – three others were newly elected – and resulted in Deal’s decision last week.
Judge Story wrote that he would like the state’s top court to address “unsettled” issues. He wrote that the public has an interest in its elected officials being allowed to serve, but said there is “an even greater” public interest at stake in DeKalb: “The interest of the public in a healthy public school system outweighs the interests of board members in serving in their positions.”
Deal is proceeding under the assumption that an appointed school board can save DeKalb’s faltering accreditation. DeKalb’s accrediting agency said the decision allows the school system to get a board with a focus on students. In lowering DeKalb’s accreditation status, SACS alleged school board mismanagement and languishing student achievement.
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 3/5/13, By Greg Bluestein and Ty Tagami
[Editor's Note: In February 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported that Governor Deal had announced his removal of all six incumbent members of the DeKalb County School Board by Executive Order. The link to the Executive Order is contained in the Editor's Note to that summary.
This is not the first time an outside force has impacted the tenure of board members. In October 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Quad City Times, which reported that Cedar County (Iowa) District Judge Mark Smith had ordered members of the Durant School Board to serve 30 days in the Cedar County Jail for violating a court order in how the board was to restore Monica Rouse to her job as Durant High School principal. The school board had voted to fire Rouse in March 2010, claiming various counts of wrongdoing. Rouse was principal for 11 years before the board fired her. She appealed her termination to the Iowa Supreme Court and won, returning to work in April 2012.]