After 14 hours of testimony, the state Board of Education voted tonight to recommend the suspension of the six veteran members of the DeKalb school board. The discussion was short and sweet, and the vote came fast. The recommendation now goes to the governor who is expected to quickly concur.
However, the matter may not end with the governor as the DeKalb board has filed suit to overturn the Georgia law that allows school board removals. There are court hearings scheduled next week, assuring that this drama will drag on for a while.
(At one point in the lengthy hearing, a state board member asked the DeKalb board members not to sue if they were ousted, but Gene Walker said he was not going to relinquish his constitutional rights.)
Only a few state board members spoke prior to the 9:43 p.m. unanimous vote to suspend all six veterans on the board. That vote came despite a final plea from new school chief Michael Thurmond, “I need this board.”
The state board simply did not buy the DeKalb board’s claims it had seen the light and was now going to work together for the betterment of the troubled district. The state board vote spares the three newly elected members of the DeKalb board, Jim McMahan, Melvin Johnson and Marshall Orson, who have only been in office seven weeks. They will retain their seats.
State board member Mike Royal said, “Would I want my two daughters in DeKalb County Schools and the answer is no. There are nearly 100,000 kids with only one chance.”
State board member Larry Winter called for a fresh start, saying that it would be easier to begin anew than for the current board to unlearn past bad practices. Brian Burdette, agreed, saying that it is an extreme measure to oust a board but DeKalb is facing extreme problems.
State board member Scott Johnson said, “This board has run from crisis to crisis. When I look at the long continuum of time, I see seven or eight days of improvement. It smacks of a deathbed repentance. When it is down to no other choices to make but good choices, I give you credit for making some.”
The two attorneys in the state Board of Education hearing on the DeKalb school board delivered their final arguments at the end of the grueling hearing.
Bob Wilson, speaking on behalf of the DeKalb Board of Education, made a moving closing statement that we will probably hear again in some fashion. The deposed board members have already sued. Wilson will be in court next week seeking to overturn the law allowing the state board and governor to oust school board members.
In his closing, Wilson said Thurmond has the strength of character to turn the board around. He also said it was a drastic action to undo the will of voters.
“I am asking you take a look at how all these people got here. I look at that flag back there and I think about the young men and now the young women who lost their lives defending it. For what? Freedom of speech, the right to vote, they are right at the top. Somebody wanted these people to be here. They were sent here by the voters. The ballot box must be given huge, huge deference in this county. If it is not, we are lost.”
“Keep in mind, every single solitary one of them was voted on by the public to be their representative for their school system. Before we do something rash — the recommendation throw them out – think long and hard.”
“I asked you when we stared to give us your attention and you have. I asked one other thing: Deal with what you have here and just be fair. Everybody in this room who has been here all day has had a certain evolution of learning about each other, about where DeKalb really is.”
“I am not going to sit here and trash the SACS report, but you know there are things in there that aren’t correct. They didn’t ask the right people the right questions. It is not an investigative report. This is a report to a system, to tell a school system what its problems are. It doesn’t have to get every one every thing right. They messed up on the books. They messed up on the wireless.”
DOE attorney Jennifer Hackemeyer won the night as the board followed her recommendation. (Frankly, it seemed that the state board had its mind made up before the 14 hours of testimony based on the speed with which it voted to suspend.)
Hackemeyer said DeKalb board lurches from crisis to crisis. “You heard promises of commitment. You heard we turned the page. Is there any evidence of sustainability, with all the hard work we know they face to turn this system around? I asked, based on all the evidence, that you make recommendation to the governor to suspend with pay.”
And they did.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog