ATLANTA (AP) — The suspension of two-thirds of the school board members in a troubled suburban Atlanta school district has rendered the board temporarily powerless and set up a legal battle over a state law that gives the governor the power to remove local school boards.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal this week announced the suspension of six of nine of the DeKalb County school board members. The targeted board members have sued to challenge the 2011 law that allows him to take that action, saying they have a constitutional right to stay in office until voters say otherwise.
The turmoil has left the board hobbled, unable to make decisions because it can't muster the required five members for a quorum.
"As elected representatives on the DeKalb Board of Education, we find ourselves in a unique and confusing situation," the remaining three board members said in a statement this week.
DeKalb County is the state's third-largest school district, serving about 99,000 students. It was placed on probation in December by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools following a six-month investigation. In a report, the accreditation agency cited long-term leadership issues including nepotism, fiscal mismanagement, inappropriate micromanagement and intimidation within the district.
"Despite attempts of various experts and organizations to bring about sustained change in the culture and operation of the Board of Education, the extensive efforts, costs and resources expended in this endeavor appear to have been wasted," the agency wrote in its report.
The State Board of Education voted unanimously to recommend the removal of the six elected board members who were in office during the time when the alleged problems took place, but the three board members who took office in January have been allowed to stay. The Republican governor on Monday announced he was following that advice and appointed a five-member panel to choose potential replacement board members.
The law allows the governor to suspend the members of a local board of education if a school or school system is put in a probationary status immediately preceding loss of accreditation. DeKalb is on probation through the end of this year. This isn't the first time Deal has used the law to remove a board. He previously removed and replaced the entire 5-member board in Miller County.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story heard arguments in the case Friday.
Lawyers for the school district and the county board of education chairman argued the state Legislature overreached when it gave the governor the power to remove elected officials and said their removal represented a serious lack of due process.
A lawyer for the state argued that the state Constitution allows legislators to enact such a law and that the governor is within his power to remove the board members and appoint replacements. The state's lawyer also argued that due process was provided, as the board members were duly notified of all the steps and have access to recourse.
Story said he would consider the arguments and decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction to freeze the process until the legal challenge to the law is resolved and that he would issue an order soon. Until then, an earlier order he issued remains in place and maintains the status quo — any replacements Deal appoints can't take office and the suspended members remain in office but can't take official actions.
The board is likely to remain in a state of uncertainty as the legal battle and procedural steps play out.
As the legal and political drama unfolds, DeKalb County's interim schools superintendent, Michael Thurmond, said everything is going on as normal. Thurmond took the helm of the troubled school district about four weeks ago after the previous superintendent reached a "mutual understanding of separation" with the board, leaving the district halfway through her three-year contract. Thurmond's appointment marked the third time in three years the board had to find a new person to lead the district.
"We have 15,000 employees who reported to work. Our teachers are in the classrooms. Our bus drivers are transporting kids to school and back. Cafeteria workers are preparing the food," he said. "We are going about our business of focusing on job No. 1, which his educating our children."
Still, he said, he'd like to see the situation with the board resolved sooner rather than later.
"It's time for us to pivot from the courthouse and judges and lawyers and focus on agenda item No. 1, which is earning full accreditation for the district and giving our full attention to improving academic performance," he said.
Education experts say the flap won't have a noticeable impact on the ability to provide an education — at least immediately. Longer term, the situation becomes more urgent as time passes, said Jack Parish, a former Henry County superintendent and a professor of education administration and policy at the University of Georgia's College of Education. Some important issues that boards might be considering this time of year include budgets for the coming fiscal year, approving personnel recommendations and actions, and looking at instructional materials for the coming school year, he said.
Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, declined to comment specifically on the situation in DeKalb County, but he did say that problems with a school board can end up hurting students the most when they jeopardize a district's accreditation.
"A school district that is not accredited is graduating students who may or may not be able to get into the schools of their choice, who may have some problems advancing in their education and their careers as adults," he said, adding that it can also affect property values in a community. "It's sort of a black eye for everyone.
Randy Faigin David, who has four children in DeKalb County schools, attended Friday's hearing. She said she originally favored the governor's removal of the school board members but said her thinking is evolving.
"Now I don't know, and I'm not even sure I care, as long as we take care of our kids," she said. "We're losing a lot of time focusing on this stuff and not focusing on our kids' education."