The AJC’s Ty Tagami has an interesting story tonight on the challenges facing the DeKalb school board in making its case in 10 hours before the state Board of Education, which will be weighing the board’s ouster.
In the meantime, DeKalb officials must argue their innocence before the Georgia Board of Education without being able to cross-examine key witnesses and not knowing which documents support which allegations. Atlanta Attorney Warren Fortson said that task will be difficult given the vague nature of the 20-page SACS report.
“It’s predicated on anonymous sources,” said Fortson, who was general counsel for Atlanta Public Schools for more than two decades. “You can’t defend yourself against smoke.”
The report identifies sources as “interviewees,” “stakeholder interviews,” “artifacts” or “various forms of evidence.” “Interviewees described a feeling of hopelessness,” it says, and “based on evidence from numerous interviews, several board members continue to make harassing calls and visits to schools.”
Mark Elgart, the president and CEO of SACS parent company AdvancEd, said soon after he released the report in December that SACS promised anonymity to induce people to talk. “We don’t have subpoena power,” Elgart said. Elgart acknowledged that his agency’s judgment hinged on the truthfulness of the 50 people interviewed, most of them administrators or school principals. But he said SACS used only anecdotes that his investigators could confirm with other interviews and “boxes” of documents or that sounded consistent with similar incidents described by multiple sources.
Elgart refused to release the documents the agency used for the report because, he said in December, he did not want to subject it to “critique.”
Critics say that approach allows SACS to make bold assertions that cannot be independently verified — or contested. That’s a central claim in the lawsuit DeKalb filed Tuesday attempting to halt the proceedings. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Amanda Lee decided Wednesday not to stop the state hearing, but she also scheduled a court date next week that could tie the governor’s hands.
A Georgia law allows removal of board members in school districts that SACS or other accrediting agencies have placed on probation. The law requires the state education board to make a recommendation to the governor. If the recommendation is for removal, Gov. Nathan Deal can suspend the entire board and name replacements.
But DeKalb alleges in court that this is unconstitutional because the law “illegally defers to the unelected and unaccountable SACS” the power to initiate suspension proceedings “without any inquiry into whether an elected local board of education member has committed any misconduct.” It “unconstitutionally creates an unreasonable qualification for local school board members: that they must remain in the good graces of an unelected, unaccountable private agency.”
Another Fulton judge has stopped the state in a similar case. A majority of the Sumter County school board sued the state in November, and Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane granted a temporary injunction that is still in place. The lawsuit is pending, with no court date set.
Don McChesney, a former DeKalb board member, said he thought the law enabling removal of the board wouldn’t withstand court scrutiny. “I’m not trying to defend the board. I think most of them ought to go,” McChesney said. “But I do think it’s unconstitutional.”
Only one board member, former chairman Eugene Walker, is referenced directly in SACS’ report, and only by title, though many of the accusations center on individuals. Walker couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, but he’s spoken often about the report. He’s particularly galled by an assertion of his “interference” in hiring when, on Aug. 24, he sent an email to then-Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson recommending someone for a job.
“Please know that I have met this young man and he is the brother of one of our board … I would appreciate any assistance that you could provide,” the report quoted the email as saying.
Many took that to mean Walker was endorsing the brother of someone with power — a board member. After reviewing the email though, Walker said he realized he sent it in reference to the brother of someone with little power — the unelected school board secretary, an employee who schedules board meetings and keeps notes on them. Walker said he thought the use of an ellipses was intentional. “They know they are misleading on that,” Walker said last month.
Among other developments:
–At a meeting with a parents’ group this morning, new school chief Michael Thurmond told parents that he understands their frustration but they have to accept some of the responsibility. “I would question your sanity if you were not angry right now,” Thurmond told the parents. He also laid the blame at their feet. “I didn’t elect the board,” he said. “You did.”
– An Atlanta-based professional polling company found that DeKalb voters are ready to shake up he school board. According to the Hicks Evaluation Group:
In a survey of registered voters county wide conducted Tuesday, February 19; nearly 80% stated that they favor: “Removing and replacing all of the school board members” or “Removing and replacing some of the school board members.” Over half (54.5%) said remove and replace all of the school board members.
“It is rare to see this kind of agreement across racial and/or political lines on an issue. A strong majority in every subgroup – gender, political affiliation, race – wants to see some type of change. If the governor is paying attention to DeKalb, then I think this sends a strong message that he could potentially remove school board members without fear of substantial backlash from voters. This is almost a plea for action,” said lead pollster Fred Hicks.
The survey focused on the question of removing board members. Additional survey work is being conducted on the question of whether or not voters believe school board members should be able to use school funds to file a lawsuit designed to prevent removal.
The survey was conducted February 19 using autodial technology. It was not commissioned by any candidate or candidate committee and is solely the work of the Hicks Evaluation Group
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog