Can the state’s law allowing the governor to oust school boards in districts at risk for losing their accreditation survive a court challenge?
We may find out this year as the law is facing two court challenges now, one filed today by the nine-member DeKalb County Board of Education.
Since the law’s passage in 2010 and amendments in 2011, I have heard many times that it will not stand a legal challenge.
DeKalb County filed suit in Fulton County Superior Court this morning arguing the law is unconstitutional. The lawsuit has three goals: Forbid the state Board of Education from holding a hearing on the DeKalb board’s status Thursday. Forbid the state board from recommending to the governor that he remove the entire nine member board. Forbid the governor from acting on that recommendation and removing the board.
Sumter was in the midst of hearings in front of the state Board of Education when it asked a judge to enjoin the proceedings. The judge agreed. Representing the state board of ed, the state attorney general’s office has asked the court to dismiss the Sumter suit, but no hearing has been scheduled on the motion.
(Sumter County District 6 board member Michael Mock asked me to clarity that only six members of the nine-member Sumter Board are parties to the lawsuit. He is among those who are not.)
The DeKalb lawsuit, filed by former DeKalb DA Robert Wilson, alleges that the law violates the Georgia constitution because it authorizes removal of local elected officials “without any individualized finding of misconduct.”
The Sumter County lawsuit voices the same lament, saying the law does not require a “finding of individual culpability prior to the recommendation and/or suspension of a board member.”
The Sumter lawsuit picks apart the language of the law, arguing its requirement that the governor suspend “all eligible members” should not be interpreted to mean that the governor “has to suspend all or none of the board members.”
“Such a construction will lead to an absurd result and the constitutional deprivation of a board member’s right to elected office, especially where a board member is suspended from office where the evidence shows that said board member played no role in the system being placed on Accredited Probation,” states the lawsuit in an argument likely to find support among the three newcomers to the DeKalb board members who only took office last month and who had no role in DeKalb’s fall from grace with SACS.
“Failure to find individual culpability but nonetheless suspend a board member is unfair, lacks a rational basis, and violates due process,” the lawsuit contends.
The lawsuit also charges that while Georgia law gives the state Legislature the right to set qualifications for school board members, it does not authorize lawmakers to “create legislation for the removal of school board members.”
(Interestingly, the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Warren County school board members who successfully challenged their 2010 removal by Gov. Sonny Perdue would seem to disagree as the ruling says reasons for removal are part of the establishment of qualifications. Perdue removed Warren under an earlier law. )
In our meeting Friday with House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, I asked him why the state should have the power to remove school board members. After all, there are other dysfunctional elected bodies around the state whose antics, while not criminal, border on insane at times. (Some might argue that the General Assembly is one such body.)
Why should the state Board of Education and governor get to pull the plug on ineffective school boards while crazy city councils and loose-cannon county commissions run free and run amok?
His response: The state’s responsibility to educate children is embedded in the state constitution. Educating children is critical to the state.
“Therein lies our inherent power and calling,” Lindsey said. The state Legislature is bound to pay attention to how schools are operating, he said.
“The fact is that where a child is born should not determine whether they are going to have a future. Wherever a child is born, the focus should be on how to get them the education they need.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog