A federal judge has decided the fate of six DeKalb school board members who sued to keep their jobs.
Federal Judge Richard Story has decided March 4 to lift a temporary restraining order and deny an injunction against Gov. Nathan Deal. The decision allows the governor remove the board members.
“The harm from the loss of accreditation to the school district and the resulting harm to the students in the district are profound,” Story stated in a court document. “To permit the board members to continue to serve…risks substantial consequences for the school district and its students.”
The board members—Sarah Copelin-Wood, Jesse “Jay” Cunningham, Donna Elder, Nancy Jester, Pamela A. Speaks and Eugene P. Walker—were removed Feb. 25 by Gov. Deal upon the unanimous recommendation of the Georgia Board of Education (GBOE).
In December, the DeKalb County Board of Education was placed on accreditation probation by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the agency that accredits the school district through its parent company, AdvancED.
The probation triggered enforcement of a state law that allows the governor to remove school boards threatened with loss of accreditation due to “school board governance related reasons.”
“The interest of the public in a healthy system outweighs the interests of board members in serving in their positions,” Story stated.
The judge acknowledged the school district had “refuted some [of] SACS’ allegation which served as part of the basis for the recommendation of the state BOE.”
But Story found that there was sufficient evidence that the DeKalb school board was in “violation of applicable standards and policies.”
During the hearing on the preliminary injunction, Bob Wilson, an attorney representing the six school board members in their legal battle, argued that “there are some very serious constitutional issues surrounding this statute. I don’t believe for a minute that citizens want elected officials removed by unconstitutional means. That question has to be answered by the courts.”
Wilson said his team argued that “for a multiplicity of reasons that it is unconstitutional both as to the Georgia Constitution and the U. S. Constitution and …because of that the statute is void.”
Wilson said there are questions whether due process has been properly followed.
“We do not accuse people of things and then deny them the right to face their accusers,” Wilson said. “We do not take property rights from people without them having due process. We do not deny citizens the privilege of citizenship without due process. Those are serious issues.”
There are very serious consequences when an elected official is removed from office, Wilson said.
“These people sitting on that school board, no matter how you feel about them, were elected,” Wilson said. “They were elected by their communities to serve. Whether they’re doing it well or not, that’s up to the community to decide at the next ballot box unless you have constitutional laws that allow removal.
“I have no beef against the state BOE,” Wilson said. “I have no beef against the prosecutor who handled that case. I have no beef against the governor. They’re trying to follow a law that’s been passed by the General Assembly, but the question is, ‘Is that law constitutional?’”
The loss of accreditation could be widespread, said Bonnie Holliday, executive director of Georgia Charter School Commission.
Holliday told the judge that students who attend unaccredited schools face “significant impediments when they apply for college” and are “ineligible for certain scholarship funds” including HOPE.
Parents generally don’t want to live in districts that are unaccredited, said Holliday, a former public school teacher and former head of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
Stephan Ritter, a senior assistant attorney general representing the state BOE, said the school district would not be in its current accreditation quandary if it had another accreditation.
“There are many school boards that have multiple accreditations,” Ritter said. “DeKalb chose not to do that.”
Responding to arguments that the six board members should have been suspended individually for specific reasons and not as a group, Ritter said the problem was about the board’s governance as a group.
“We are talking about how that board has functioned,” Ritter said. “It is entirely appropriate to treat them as a group for that purpose.”
Gov. Deal has formed a nominating committee that will recommend replacement members for the DeKalb school board. That creates even more uncertainty in the school district, said Stephen Quinn, an attorney representing school district.
“We simply don’t know what the appointed replacements will do in office,” Quinn said. “It’s the citizens…who have the right choose who is going to represent them on the school board,” he said.