The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The DeKalb County school board filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging a state law that could result in the removal of the nine school board members.
The suit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court by an outside attorney charging taxpayers $250 an hour, seeks a temporary restraining order to prevent a hearing by the Georgia Board of Education Thursday.
The hearing could result in a recommendation to suspend the DeKalb board. Such a recommendation would give Gov. Nathan Deal authority to remove the DeKalb board per a 2011 law.
When informed of DeKalb’s decision to sue, Deal said litigation may only prolong the pain in DeKalb, Georgia’s third largest school district.
“The longer this is drawn out, the more protracted it becomes and the more the story becomes one that concerns people everywhere,” Deal said. “We don’t want anything to occur that will jeopardize what a diploma from a DeKalb County high school might mean, so everything that can be done to facilitate and bring this all to some logical conclusion serves us all.”
The 2011 law requires a hearing — like the one scheduled Thursday — for any school district whose accreditation is on probation. DeKalb was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in December. The agency threatened to strip accreditation altogether if the school board doesn’t address financial and management concerns.
The lawsuit, filed by Decatur attorney Robert Wilson on behalf of the DeKalb district, alleges that the 2011 law violates the Georgia constitution because it authorizes removal of local elected officials “without any individualized finding of misconduct.”
Wilson did not return a call for comment. No court hearing date was immediately scheduled in the case, which was assigned to Judge Kelly A. Lee.
The Department of Education had no comment. Spokesman Matt Cardoza said the DeKalb hearing before the state board will occur as scheduled at 8 a.m. Thursday, “until we hear otherwise.”
A similar lawsuit filed by a school board member in Sumter County halted a similar state hearing. Kevin Pless sued in Fulton Superior Court in November, and Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane granted a temporary injunction, ordering the state board not to convene the hearing. The Sumter lawsuit itself is still pending.
Deal said he will discuss the DeKalb lawsuit with county members of the General Assembly.
State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, predicted local outrage. Among SACS’ concerns was taxpayer money DeKalb was spending on lawyers while the budget to teach nearly 100,000 students was being slashed. Millar judged this latest move a “selfish” delay tactic aimed at clinging to power.
“I would like to know who voted in favor of this motion because obviously it’s all about them and not about 100,000 children,” said Millar, the former chairman of the Senate education committee. “All this delay does is increase the likelihood of loss of accreditation,” Millar said. “How selfish can people be?”
Bill Armstrong, a father of three children in DeKalb schools, said the lawsuit is “an outrageous evasion” of the school board’s duty.
“I don’t understand why they all don’t resign,” said Armstrong, of Chamblee. “They are clearly trying to save their jobs instead of the school system.”
If there was a public vote, it didn’t occur in public Monday — the most recent open meeting of the DeKalb board. During that meeting, the board voted to go into a private session to discuss and undisclosed legal matter. Spokesman Jeff Dickerson was not immediately available for comment.
The suit was filed around the time that DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis was meeting with DeKalb school board chairman Eugene Walker and about a dozen local “stakeholders” to discuss the school district’s problems.
Reporters were excluded from the morning meeting. Afterward, Ellis told Channel 2 Action News that they held a “robust discussion” and a “good conversation” and were planning to meet again soon.
In the afternoon, a spokesman for Ellis was unaware of the lawsuit and had no immediate comment. Later, the spokesman provided this statement from Ellis, who didn’t directly address the legal matter: “My sole interests are in assisting the school district in addressing the requirements contained in the SACS Report and ensuring that every child receives access to a quality education,” Ellis said. He said the morning meeting was to “engage concerned DeKalb County stakeholders in that process.”
The stakeholders at Ellis’ meeting included local lawmakers and the president of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, but not Dave Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, the major local advocacy group for educators.
“We’re disappointed,” Schutten said. “We’re the major stakeholders here.” He predicted the employees will be more than disappointed by the lawsuit, and the associated legal costs.
“This is crazy,” Schutten said. “I think people are going to be outraged. People haven’t had a pay raise in four or five years. … People are going to be upset about them spending more money on attorneys’ fees.”
The lawsuit was filed a day after the school board voted to pay the law firm of former Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker $150,000 for “governance training” to address the SACS concerns.
The DeKalb board voted to hire Wilson and his firm Wilson, Morton & Downs earlier this month. Wilson’s mandate: the state board of education hearing “and/or related proceedings or actions.”
Wilson and his associates are to be paid $250 an hour for a time period that is not limited by the contract. It’s unclear how much the case has cost so far. The district responded earlier this month to an open records request by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeking Wilson’s invoices by saying none had been filed.
DeKalb interim superintendent Michael Thurmond told the school board Monday that he thought the hiring of Baker and his firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge for technical help and training would help “buttress” the school board’s case in the state hearing. Thurmond had no comment Tuesday about the lawsuit, deferring questions to the school boards.
“This was a board decision,” Thurmond said. He said he hadn’t talked to any teachers about the suit and couldn’t comment about any reaction they might have had to it. He said he was focused on “winning” back accreditation and declined to comment about any effect the suit might have on his chances for that. He said he was still time for the parties to work a compromise.
Walker, who announced Monday that he plans to relinquish his chairmanship, could not be reached for comment.
Jim McMahan, the new vice chairman of the DeKalb school board, said he could not comment about anything that occurred in a closed-door legal discussion. He added this, though: “I believe there’s always alternatives to filing a lawsuit.”