In his passionate closing statement before the state Board of Education on Thursday, attorney Bob Wilson hearkened to fallen soldiers, the flag and the Constitution in an effort to save the jobs of his clients, veteran DeKalb County school board members
“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, ” Wilson told the state board at the end of the 14-hour hearing. “The ballot box must be given huge, huge deference in this county. If it is not, we are lost.”
A former DeKalb district attorney and one of the two attorneys tapped by Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2010 to probe CRCT cheating, Wilson didn’t land a winning punch with this powerful imagery.
A unanimous state board voted to recommend that Gov. Nathan Deal suspend the DeKalb board. The state board wasn’t impressed with what one member called DeKalb’s “deathbed repentance,” telling the six members that their history of dysfunction outweighed their promises of change.
But Wilson may get to give the speech again and perhaps to a more receptive audience.
On behalf of the DeKalb board members, he filed suit in Fulton County Superior Court and in U.S. District Court arguing the law allowing the governor to oust school board members in troubled districts is unconstitutional. A hearing in Fulton Superior Court on Thursday could restrain the governor from proceeding on the suspensions. A hearing in federal court is scheduled for Tuesday, but Wilson requested it be rescheduled because the transcript from the state board hearing will not be ready.
In turning to the courts, DeKalb joins six Sumter County board members who challenged the law in November and forestalled their removal from office.
Deal will announce Monday at 11 a.m. whether he will follow the state board’s lead and suspend the DeKalb board. (On Friday, Wilson asked the federal court for an injunction to stop Deal from acting on the state board’s recommendation. Will post if the court issues that temporary restraining order.)
“Removing elected officials from office is a serious duty, not undertaken lightly,” the governor said in a statement Friday. “That responsibility, however, pales in comparison to the importance of assuring the credibility of students’ education.”
There are legitimate questions about empowering a governor to unseat school boards that the courts — and all Georgia voters — ought to consider:
•The law provides for removing board members without any showing of any wrongdoing or even a lack of discretion.
•The law cedes unprecedented and almost absolute power over elected officials to a private accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The law specifies that boards can be removed by the governor after being put on probation by its accrediting agency. In this case, that agency is SACS, which has been far more troubled by 5-4 school board votes than by chronically low test scores and faltering academics. As Nancy Jester, one of the DeKalb board members recommended for suspension,
noted about the SACS criteria for accreditation: “You can be a school board of distinction, but the student achievement can be abysmal.”
•Why should the governor have the power to remove school board members for ineffectiveness yet pay no heed to crazy city councils and loose-cannon county commissions? There are many dysfunctional elected bodies around the state whose antics, while also not criminal, are irrational and damaging. (Some might cite the General Assembly as an example.)
•The law could be challenged for not only being unconstitutional, but incomprehensible. Last month, the state board told DeKalb emphatically that the law required all school board members, regardless of tenure, must be removed. Thus, DeKalb’s three brand-new members would go, too, if suspension were recommended. It was “all or nothing,” according to the state board.
However, at the start of the state board hearing last week, the Department of Education attorney reversed positions, saying the three newcomers wouldn’t be ousted because they had no role in DeKalb’s fall from grace with SACS. But the DeKalb board members elected two years could make the same argument, especially since it was conceded by SACS that DeKalb’s management problems go back a decade. Yet those two-year board members were recommended for removal.
•The big beneficiary in this debacle may be the governor, who gets to make a political decision that will widely be seen as heroic: removing the controversial DeKalb school board. Even if the courts overturn the law, it won’t be a loss, as Deal really doesn’t want to run the DeKalb schools.
Several speakers at the board hearing declared it was a “new day” in DeKalb. But many of the old problems — racial and economic divides, a ravaged real estate market, a growing underclass — remain. And it’s not apparent that a hand-picked school board will be enough to solve them.
–From Maureen Downey, the AJC Get Schooled blog