Update at 7 p.m. : The federal court hearing lasted just under three hours. The judge did not rule yet. He wants to consider all the arguments. I will write up the hearing later. But it was much of the same stuff said at the state hearing.
Despite last-ditch efforts to avoid a court battle, the DeKalb school board drama will move to a federal courtroom this afternoon.
School board member Eugene Walker says his reputation is at stake and he intends to wage battle in court.
It remains unclear whether the DeKalb school board’s vote to hire former DeKalb DA Bob Wilson essentially amounts to a blank check for legal fees; I am trying to find out whether the taxpayer funding for this lawsuit has any limit or does it flow to the bitter end.
Concern over the use of taxpayer funds to finance this legal battle has led State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, to propose a law that would prevent suspended school board members from using taxpayer dollars to mount a protracted legal effort to keep their jobs.
His House Bill 468 states: “A local board of education shall not expend any public funds for attorney’s fees or expenses of litigation relating to removal proceedings pursuant to this Code section except as necessary for its defense at the hearing before the state board as provided for in subsection.”
Among those signing onto the bill was state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who said, “Spending taxpayer money to save your elected job to avoid SACS sanctions is just wrong.”
In polling board members on whether they are willing to resign to avoid what could be costly and protracted court battle, AJC reporter Ty Tagami reports: School board member Pam Speaks said at a state hearing last week that she would resign rather than fight for her seat. Nancy Jester and Donna Edler have expressed uncertainty when contacted by the AJC. The other suspended board members — Sarah Copelin-Wood and Jesse “Jay” Cunningham — could not be reached for comment.
Walker, the former DeKalb school board chairman, told Tagami that he expected the five other deposed board members to fight on, too. “Why would they resign?” said Walker. “If they did, it would shock me.”
In an analysis of the stakes in this fight, Tagami reports:
A drawn-out legal fight could have its own consequences. The board’s three remaining members don’t have a legal quorum to make decisions for the district’s nearly 100,000 students. Deal could eventually appoint replacements, but the process to remove the suspended board members takes two to five months. Interim superintendent Michael Thurmond has said it would be destabilizing to simultaneously have appointed and suspended but unremoved board members.
Adding to the complications is a DeKalb policy that says the local school board, by majority vote, should fill any vacancy that occurs at least 90 days before a general election. If any members resigned and the lawsuit succeeded, then the remaining members would have a hand in picking successors. That may weigh on the minds of the historically fractious board.
School board member Pam Speaks said at a state hearing last week that she would resign rather than fight for her seat. Nancy Jester and Donna Edler have expressed uncertainty when contacted by the AJC. The other suspended board members — Sarah Copelin-Wood and Jesse “Jay” Cunningham — could not be reached for comment.
Some DeKalb lawmakers, frustrated by what they see as an overreach by the executive branch, are pushing to rein in Deal’s powers. State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, said she was mulling legislation that would allow the governor to replace school board members only after collecting signatures from voters in their districts for a recall.
“I just want people to calm down and take a look at the other side,” said Kendrick, who warned that voters could be “usurped” by state officials. “Think about what this kind of precedent will shape politics moving forward.”
State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, said the powers lawmakers gave the governor were “intended to be a club that no one would ever use.” Now that he’s used them, Jones said, it’s time to rethink that authority.
“I’m hearing concerns about the process. The governor didn’t put the process in place – the Legislature did,” said Jones, D-Decatur. “And we have the responsibility to rework the bill.”
The governor’s office wouldn’t comment on whether the law needed tweaking, but it said Deal had little choice but to take the one “legal step at his disposal” and suspend DeKalb’s board members. “While others fight on behalf of the people who brought the school system to the brink, Governor Deal will fight for our children and the home values of residents throughout DeKalb,” said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog