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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

DeKalb Board Members Face Ax From Governor

ATLANTA (CN) - The governor of Georgia can remove six school board members from scandal-plagued DeKalb County, a federal judge ruled, tossing a restraining order.

With an order for the school district to take its remaining claims to the state Supreme Court, there does not appear to be an end in sight to the legal woes facing the DeKalb board, which oversees the third largest school district in the Georgia and has been beset in recent years with financial and ethical violations.

DeKalb has been on probation with its accrediting institution since 2012, two years after the racketeering indictments served against then-superintendent Crawford Lewis and then-CEO Pat Pope.

Worried that its members faced suspension, the DeKalb school district and board president Eugene Walker filed state and federal complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal and the state board of education.

U.S. District Judge Richard Story granted the district and Walker a temporary restraining order in February, but vacated that award Monday and refused to enter a preliminary injunction.

"The harm from the loss of accreditation to the School District and the resulting harm to the students in the district are profound," Story wrote. "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."

Deal had previously announced his intention to suspend the six of nine DeKalb board members, citing the recommendation of the state board and authority under section 20-2-73 of Georgia law.

"The stakes in this case are high; the future of almost 100,000 students hangs in the balance," Deal said in statement.

Judge Story was not swayed by arguments that Deal must provide due process to DeKalb board members he seeks to remove.

"Plaintiffs' submissions identify the property right of elected officials in their office as an interest that cannot be denied without due process of law," the ruling states. "However, they fail to identify any property interest of the school district that is threatened by the state's action."

"The School Board Suspension Statute assures continuity of operations through appointments by the governor to fill vacancies created by the suspensions," Story added, referring to section 20-2-73. "Thus, the loss of any property interest by the school district is not apparent to the court. In the absence of a showing of loss of a property interest, the school district would lack a key element in its Fourteenth Amendment claim."

Judge Story would not deem the suspension statute unconstitutional under state law.

"Plaintiffs assert that a review of the Article VIII provisions creating educational offices supports their position that, as elected officials, members of local boards of education must be treated differently for removal purposes," he wrote. "Members of the SBOE and Board of Regents are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. For these boards, the Constitution specifically authorizes the General Assembly to provide for the removal from office of the members."

The board members questioned whether the Georgia law is at odds with their "constitutional right to retain the office to which they have been duly elected," but Story refused to resolve this issue.

"The School Board Suspension Statute was passed by the General Assembly in 2010," he wrote. "The Georgia Supreme Court has not addressed any of the issues raised by plaintiffs. A decision on these issues could have a significant impact on the public education system in Georgia."

"The more expeditious manner for addressing the issues is through certification," Story added. "Rather than having to wait on a newly-filed state action to work its way through to appeal, this court can promptly certify questions to the Supreme Court. Believing that time is of the essence, the court chooses to proceed by certifying questions to the Georgia Supreme Court. This approach will assure that a state court decides these issues that are so directly related to state institutions and state functions and will further assure that a decision is made as expeditiously as possible."

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