School Board Members Fight Removal in Georgia

     ATLANTA (CN) – Armed with a restraining order, the DeKalb County Board of Education amended claims against a Georgia law that authorizes the suspension of its members.
     Allegations of financial mismanagement and in-fighting have for the last few years plagued the DeKalb board, which oversees the third largest school district in the state.
     In 2010, its superintendent, Crawford Lewis, and then-CEO Pat Pope were reportedly indicted on racketeering charges related to construction contracts awarded to Pope’s ex-husband.
     The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, an accreditation division of AdvancedED, put the DeKalb district on probation in 2012.
     After investigating complaints of fiscal and organizational conflicts within the county’s board of education, the agency released a bleak report of its findings.
     Worried that Gov. Nathan Deal would suspend its members under Section 20-2-73 of the O.C.G.A., short for the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, the DeKalb school district and board president Eugene Walker sued Deal and the state board of education last week in Fulton County Superior Court.
     Judge Kelly Lee refused to expedite the case, however, so the DeKalb and Walker refiled their motion for a restraining order in the Northern District of Georgia.
     U.S. District Judge Richard Story gave them some relief Friday, stopping Gov. Deal from suspending and replacing any members with newly selected – not elected – individuals.
     Though Story refused to block Deal “from acting to suspend or remove any elected” board member, he said “implementation of Governor Deal’s decisions in this regard is hereby enjoined to preserve the status quo until after this court has held a hearing on the matter.”
     “Thus, if Governor Deal decides to appoint any new member to the board that proposed member shall not be permitted to take office at this time,” Story wrote. “Similarly, if Governor Deal decides to remove any current member of the board, that member will remain in office, but shall not be permitted to act on behalf of the board or take any other official action in his or her capacity as board member.”
     Deal reacted Monday by announcing his intention to suspend the six of nine DeKalb board members, citing the recommendation of the state board.
     “The stakes in this case are high; the future of almost 100,000 students hangs in the balance,” Deal said in statement.
     That same day, the DeKalb district and Walker filed a first amended complaint to block the suspensions until the next hearing on the case takes place Friday, March 1.
     They said that board members have a “constitutional right to retain the office to which they have been duly elected,” superseding the Georgia law
     “Plaintiffs are entitled to a Declaratory Judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201 declaring that O.C.G.A. § 20-2-73 violates the Georgia Constitution by creating unauthorized new qualifications for the elected office of local board of education and a removal procedure outside of voter recall that does not require any showing of individual misconduct,” the complaint states.
     “Unless enjoined by this court, such action by the governor will result in the replacement of the duly-elected DCBOE members with an un-elected lame-duck board, thus causing irreparable injury to plaintiffs and the citizens of DeKalb County.”
     The district and Walker want the court to find O.C.G.A. § 20-2-73 unenforceable as a violation of due-process rights protected by the 14th Amendment, as well as the right of the people of DeKalb County to have an elected board of education under Article VIII, § V, Paragraph 2, of the Georgia Constitution.
     They are represented by Wilson, Morton & Downs attorney Robert Wilson.
     In its December 2012 report on the district, AdvancedED took aim primarily at the DeKalb board’s lax adherence to its own communication rules with its schools and personnel, and blamed budget misappropriation for pushing the district into a financial crisis.
     “Based on evidence from numerous interviews, several board members continue to make harassing calls and visits to schools,” the report states. “There was frequent mention of board members who make special requests of district office staff, bus drivers and teachers, making threats to fire them if they do not comply with their individual requests.”
     It continued: “The district has exhausted its reserve funds and is operating with a severe monetary deficit. In utilizing options to secure material and fiscal resources to meet the needs of all students and improve the effectiveness of the system, the district established in 2009 a textbook leasing program with Bank of America for a $25 million credit line to purchase textbooks. Reportedly, the credit line has been capped at $12.5 million, a debt that the system plans to repay over a period of seven years. The Board adopted the action item for the Termination of Acquisition Fund for Textbook Leasing Program.”
     “Additionally, through interviews, the team was unable to identify any schools that benefitted from textbook purchases.”

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