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Suspended school board member seeks reinstatement

Jesse “Jay” Cunningham appeared before a judge to ask for his DeKalb County school board back. Photo by Andrew Cauthen

Suspended DeKalb County school board member Jesse “Jay” Cunningham wanted a judge to know that he had a habit of following the chain of command.

“Would you say that I followed the chain of command?” he asked witness after witness.

They all agreed.

Cunningham represented himself July 15 during a hearing in which he asked to be reinstated to his position on the DeKalb County Board of Education.

Cunningham was one of six school board members who were suspended earlier this year by Gov. Nathan Deal after the DeKalb school district 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.

Acting on the recommendation of the Georgia Board of Education, Deal suspended six of the nine members of the DeKalb school board in February and later replaced them.

In addition to Cunningham, the governor suspended Eugene Walker, Sarah Copelin-Wood, Donna Elder, Nancy Jester and Pamela A. Speaks.

“I understand the needs of the whole county, not just one particular district,” Cunningham said when he took the stand. “I have worked hard to make sure we hit every corner of the county.

“The present board that we have is doing a good job, but…there’s no one there that has the experience or the background to work with them, to work with that superintendent, to talk about things we did in the past, things we need to do in the future,” Cunningham said.

“What I bring back to the table, being reinstated, is a knowledge of facts and understanding, through governance and leadership and policy, to get the job done. That’s my testimony. I would like to be reinstated,” he said.

Under questioning by Cunningham, who represented himself, Reginald Johnson, director of R. Johnson Community Services, said the suspended board member has been an asset to the school district.

“We’ve seen a big change in a lot of schools that you were working with,” Johnson said.

“I really feel you were a plus for the county,” Johnson said. “I’m not saying that as a friend, I’m saying that as a business owner.”

Johnson praised Cunningham for eliminating many of the classroom trailers from his district.

“We’re very impressed with what he did with those trailers,” Johnson said.

“The loss of Mr. Cunningham would be a setback for the county,” Johnson said. “We can’t afford to lose him right now. We have a lot of respect for that school board that was in place at that time.”

Cunningham also asked several witnesses, among them DCSD Chief Operating Officer Stephen Wilkins, whether he had a good working relationship with them.

“I found our working relationship always very professional,” Wilkins said

Bruce McMillan, who was once a member of the Southwest DeKalb Parent Council, said Cunningham has always been one to focus on the education of students, particularly at “some of the weaker schools,” even if they were not in his school district.

When questioned about Cunningham’s job performance if reinstated, McMillan said, based on his six years of knowing the board member, “I think you would do a fantastic job.

“I don’t have any bad words to say about any board member,” McMillan said.

Attorney Tanya Graham, whose two daughters attend Arabia Mountain High School, said Cunningham was active in the Parent Teacher Student Association.

“He actively came over to Arabia Mountain High School,” said Graham, president of the school’s PTSA. “He would work with, not only the schools he was responsible for, but all of DeKalb County.”

The hearing for suspended school board member Donna Edler was July 16.

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