DeKalb board chair: Supports reducing legal fees but no details on spending to fight suspensions

Posters asked some good questions on the funding of the litigation by suspended board members. I sent some of questions to the three standing board members of DeKalb and have already posted the responses from Jim McMahan and Marshall Orson on the blog.

This morning I heard from the DeKalb board Chair Melvin Johnson.

None of the three has been particularly forthcoming on the issue of how and why the board approved the contract with Decatur attorney Bob Wilson’s firm, who voted for it and whether they  support continuing it. Did they approve open-ended funding of ongoing and escalating litigation or was the intent to pay for representation primarily at the state Board of Education hearing?

The AJC continues to look at the circumstances under which the DeKalb school board approved the money for this legal challenge as there are a lot of questions about whether it met Sunshine law requirements. I believe DeKalb needs a serious refresher course in what permits them to  duck behind closed doors, a point raised by several state board members after hearing that DeKalb shut the public out of its discussion around hiring another law firm, McKenna Long & Aldridge, for $150,000 to provide governance training. One state board member commended that DeKalb seems to follow a different interpretation of the open meetings law than the rest of the state.

About that contract: Board member Marshall Orson told me in an email: “Yes, it’s pricey and more than I would like us to spend. But, it’s about a lot more than training nine members of the Board of Education. Characterizing it that way misses the point — we have a broken governance system. Not just the Board but at the Central Office, between the Board and the Central Office and, perhaps most importantly, between the Central Office and the schoolhouse.”

Orson also corrected a Get Schooled poster who said that Orson was the one who “found MLA and reached out to them.”

“I did not say that… I did say they were experts in governance and were engaged by significant corporate and government entities for their expertise,” said Orson.

(On this issue, DeKalb taxpayers ought to ask some tough questions of a board that contends it will be data-driven and careful in its spending given the district’s financial distress: Where is the evidence that the governance training by the law firm is superior to what is offered by far cheaper sources? Show taxpayers proof the results will be superior. Why not try the training through school boards associations and groups and then decide if more training is needed before hiring an expensive firm?)

Now, the readers’ questions that I sent Melvin Johnson:

Can you explain if you are still paying the legal bills for the suspended six and when that will stop? In a closed meeting around the end of February, the then DeKalb Board voted to hire legal representation for defense against suspension. 1. From what account were these funds authorized? 2. Now that a Federal judge has upheld the Governor’s authority to suspend 6 of the nine board members, is that defense cost authorization still valid? 3. Is Mr. Walker the only suspended board member who intends to pursue resolution through the court system? Other members have not been so very vocal. If Mr. Walker continues without the others, does that invalidate the vote of the nine member board taken in February relative to funds allocation?

Johnson’s response:

Thank you for your questions. As you are aware, at the present time, there are only three members of the Board of Education who have not been suspended by the Governor. Because the non-suspended members do not constitute a quorum, the Board is not able to act as a whole at this time.

Accordingly, any decisions to be made at the Board level regarding the pending litigation or other matters must await the appointment of temporary replacement members by the Governor. In terms of the intentions or plans of the suspended Board members, that is a question that should be addressed to them.

Regarding Legal fees, they will be paid from the legal fund.

Finally, without commenting on any specific matters, and speaking for myself only, I certainly support the development and implementation of a strategy to reduce legal expenditures for the School District, and look forward to working with the Board to do so.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

46 comments Add your comment

Educator for Life

March 7th, 2013
11:16 am

Get the other 6 in quick!

Centrist

March 7th, 2013
11:35 am

Shadowy, elusive answers and non-answers to questions while saying the Dekalb board has its own single interpretation of open record sunshine laws actually says a lot.

Who stands for the children?

March 7th, 2013
11:36 am

Sorry, Mr. Johnson, but with all due respect, your response must have been lawyer-speak (for many years worked for them and fully recognize lawyer-speak). But all that aside, and not important to the issue, I have a question: if decisions must be made by a whole Board (there is no quorum), then how in the world can decisions continue to be made to pay Crawford Lewis’ fees (boy, does that one stick in the craw of the taxpayers!), but the ongoing fees as well? Further, can you tell the taxpayers how much is left in the so-called “legal fund?”

Concernedmom30329

March 7th, 2013
11:37 am

I wonder if Marshall realizes or cares that no more teachers are going to be hired, so all openings will be filled with a sub and that there is now a spending freeze.

150000 dollars can buy a lot of paper and other supplies. What are they thinking?

Oh year, at least one contributor to Marshall’s campaign is an attorney at MLA. There may be more, no time to check. Did Marshall abstain from the vote? No. Is it legal for him to vote? Probably, does it pass a smell test? You decide.

Chamblee Dad

March 7th, 2013
12:05 pm

“DeKalb seems to follow a different interpretation of the open meetings law than the rest of the state.”

Oh so true. Exactly what is “legal” about ethics training. I would hope part of their training by MLA includes the requirements of Sunshine Laws. For that much money they should really get told how. As in: “an example of doing it the wrong way is the way hired us.” “Can anyone tell us how you should have done it?” “Anyone?” No hands raised.

Frustrated Dekalb Parent

March 7th, 2013
12:13 pm

Thank you, Ms. Downey, for keeping the pressure on the Board and the district. They have been unaccountable for so long and being in the spotlight and hotseat will hopefully change that.

SWGA Parent

March 7th, 2013
12:22 pm

Well…Those questions were certainly answered in a clear and concise manner….NOT!

bu2

March 7th, 2013
12:24 pm

Its not clear from the responses by Orson and Thurmond how much is encompassed by the governance training from McKenna. But if it improves communication so that schools aren’t left without textbooks, necessary staff aren’t eliminated, unnecessary staff aren’t kept and the board is able to monitor when the district is spending $49 million they weren’t supposed to, its worth every penny.

This is where the improvements in the communications office Maureen mentioned might help. The contract covers more than just training the board, but the story that is circulating is that its just the board. How much more than just training the board isn’t clear from the limited responses so far.

bu2

March 7th, 2013
12:27 pm

In fairness to the 3, the SACS criticized board members for announcing their positions before the board meeting. They may be getting told that they need to wait until an official board meeting and discussion takes place. Thus, the non-answers on the legal fees challenging the state law.

Dunwoody Mom

March 7th, 2013
12:29 pm

@bu2…stop, just stop justifying Orson’s moves.

Dekalb Watchdog

March 7th, 2013
12:31 pm

Disheartening

Pride and Joy

March 7th, 2013
12:32 pm

We need to give the author of this non-response a quick heave ho out the doh — for the way he obviously wants to play the same old crooked games the suspended BOE is playing.
Yes, YOU MELVIN JOHSON! How dare you treat we taxpayers, parents and citizens with such disdain — your double-talk is infuriating and if I have my way, you’ll be ousted before you can make another STUPID ARROGANT post you slime!

Pride and Joy

March 7th, 2013
12:34 pm

AND I APPLAUD Get Schooled for being a good government watchdog on this particular issue. Our media’s main purpose is to keep an eye on government and expose waste, fraud and abuse and lies.
BRAVO!

Pardon My Blog

March 7th, 2013
12:40 pm

Appears that Melvin is going to continue to look out for his buddies – Lewis, Walker, etc. Teachers? why should we hire more? why should they get a pay raise? subs are so much cheaper! and just who are these “students” that people say need an education?

bu2

March 7th, 2013
12:43 pm

@Dunwoody Mom
You’re jumping with your preconceived notions and no facts. We have very little facts about the McKenna contract and don’t know what it entails. It certainly raises questions, but you can’t draw any conclusions one way or the other.

And as Maureen points out, we really don’t know who voted for any of these things, so I’m not defending anyone in particular. They’ve all been similarly careful on their wording, so it sounds like they are getting advice on how to respond on specific issues.

catlady

March 7th, 2013
12:49 pm

Funny how virtually EVERY OTHER board uses low cost training, but somehow the board members in Dekalb are too dense to “get it”? Who is related/friends with the legal firm?

Secondly, I would argue that there is a quorum. Right now, there are three working, valid members of the board. If all of them show up, they have a quorum easily-100%.

I would also argue that the school board has no business paying for the legal fees of non-members. Once they were suspended by the governor, they were no longer functioning as board members, and therefor ineligible for their legal bills to be paid.

You have to wonder if measures taken during an illegal meeting (not allowing public in the meeting) could be valid.

So many stupid moves, so little time spent.

Typo: “Commented”, not commended. 4th paragraph.

alm

March 7th, 2013
12:50 pm

How many law firms are we paying now? I’ve lost track. I’m not trying to be a smart a$$, I really want to know.

bu2

March 7th, 2013
12:51 pm

Mr. Johnson’s non-answer may be what he was advised to do to try to keep from losing accreditation. So these people may be getting pilloried for not doing what the old board did that got us into the mess. The old board seemed to make their decisions before the meetings without involving all the other members.

dekalbite@Maureen

March 7th, 2013
12:51 pm

Thank you. I would imagine that the three new BOE members are sticking together so no one knows who voted for spending the money on this legal challenge. Since Speaks and Jester voted NO to spending on this lawsuit, if the three NEW BOE members had joined them, there would have been no lawsuit ( 5 to 4 vote against it). Who voted yes or no on additional funding for lawyers for Lewis was not a “secret” yet these votes are “secret” or kept from the public.

The three new BOE members Orson, McMahan, and Johnson know next summer will see all of their seats up for election so they do not want voters to know who committed DeKalb Schools to yet another costly and probably ugly lawsuit. Is this right – to keep the knowledge of a yes or no vote on a specific significant expenditure from voters so that this will not be a consideration when voters cast their ballots?

Exactly where in the budget will they put the forecast of how much this will cost taxpayers or will this be hidden in a line item under a general term – Attorneys – $10,000,000 – I believe that is the current forecast for legal fees in DeKalb (not considering this lawsuit).

BTW – the commenter who says DeKalb is only hiring subs as teachers is correct. This is a scandal in and of itself. SACS has slammed DeKalb Schools for not focusing on the classroom. We had many teachers retire January 1 with the Georgia Teachers Retirement system rules change so we have a very substantial number of classes where there are no teachers – just substitutes. Now they intend to hire just subs for the rest of the year – how disruptive to students who lose their teacher in the middle of the year. Look at PATS to see how many teachers we need and then see that the job description for every teacher position is a sub. NONE of the non teaching positions (and there way too many of them and most higher paying than teachers) are “temp” positions. Who will stand up for students? Why is the budget always balanced on the back of the classroom?

DeKalb PATS:
https://pats.dekalb.k12.ga.us/

Who is interfacing with and handling the SACS complaint? The rumor is Ramona Tyson. This would be disastrous for DeKalb Schools as well as DeKalb because Ms. Tyson’s actions (eliminating 200 paraprofessionals is just one example) are specifically cited by SACS as some of the primary reasons DeKalb is on probation (see p.13 of the SACS report – see link below).
DeKalb SACS Report:
http://www.dekalb.k12.ga.us/www/documents/advanced-sacs-accreditation-review/special-review-team-report-(10-2012).pdf

(Please look at the way they scanned in this report so it is not searchable. In addition, some of the pages are in landscape and some are in portrait mode to make it even more difficult to review.)

catlady

March 7th, 2013
12:52 pm

Oh, and I would argue that there is NO WAY Dekalb should be paying for Lewis’s legal fees. It it obligated to pay for the defense if he was performing his job in a legal way. He was not hired to take part in RICO; therefore, there is NO obligation to pay. That should be severed immediately.

Dunwoody Mom

March 7th, 2013
12:55 pm

@bu2, the 3 current members WERE part of the “old board” that continued to approve legal fees , met in Executive Session rather than appearing to be “transparent” and approved this unnecessary expense with regards to Mr. Baker’s firm. Hopefully, the 6 new members of the DBOE will keep the current ones “in line”.

Georgia Mom

March 7th, 2013
12:59 pm

First of all, let me just reiterate a big thank you to Maureen and the AJC for this providing this forum for asking questions, getting feedback and venting.
I have some (not a lot of) appreciation for the fact that Melvin Johnson is guarded in his response. He and the other 2 existing board members are in a heck of an awkward spot right now and it may become more of a train wreck for them when the new members are installed.
But he said something for which every Dekalb County citizen (parent and/or property owner) should demand clarification – IMHO. We need to know about that Legal Fund. Evidently, it’s a bottomless pit. What percentage of the $14 million deficit do the legal expenses represent? I keep reading about forensic audits. Are those made available to the public?

Disgusted in Dekalb

March 7th, 2013
1:00 pm

I started to say that he sounds like Walker II, but then I realized that Walker would have accused Maureen of being a racist for asking the questions.

dekalbite@bu2

March 7th, 2013
1:01 pm

If one or more of these three new BOE members had not voted yes to the Walker lawsuit, there would be no DeKalb tax dollars funding this lawsuit because it would have been 5 to 4 against funding the lawsuit. These three members could have rendered this moot. Since one or more of them committed tax dollars to the lawsuit, they should not be allowed to hid their vote because it might hurt their chances of being re-elected. That’s what democracy is all about – you vote for leaders and then you look at their votes to see if you want to vote for them again. They may hide the details of litigation discussions, but they are not allowed to hide their votes – yes or no – on important expenditures.

catlady

March 7th, 2013
1:02 pm

For example, if, during a meeting as Superintendent, Mr. Lewis makes a clumsy move and flings a pencil accross the room, striking someone in the eye resulting in loss of vision, then the system should cover his legal fees. However, I am willing to bet that in NO PLACE in his contract is “particpating in fraud” as part of his duties! Not sure why no one has put a stop to this.

bootney farnsworth

March 7th, 2013
1:10 pm

well, hell. Melvin.

I was unfairly laid off from GPC because the school spent itself into oblivion during the Tricoli experience. since GPC is mostly in DeKalb, and it would be fighting “the man”. how about paying for me to sue GPC and the BOR

makes just as much sense as paying for the gang of six.

dekalbite@Georgia mom

March 7th, 2013
1:13 pm

” I keep reading about forensic audits. Are those made available to the public?”

I do not believe there have been any forensic audits. There was an Internal Auditor position left unfilled for years by Lewis (no room in the budget was what you consistently read in the Board meeting minutes). One was hired under Tyson after much pressure from the public and he was supposed to report to the Board. Theoretically the Lewis and Pope mess could have been avoided if there was an auditor not reporting directly to the superintendent – how do you audit your supervisor? Under Atkinson, he was quietly moved back to reporting to her. Shortly thereafter, he left the position and now there is yet again no Internal Auditor.

Private Citizen

March 7th, 2013
1:19 pm

notice of typo. please delete comment upon remedy. :-) “One state board member commented that DeKalb seems to follow a different interpretation of the open meetings law than the rest of the state.”

dekalbite

March 7th, 2013
1:21 pm

Perhaps the state BOE is sorry it did not remove all of the BOE members since these are proving no more transparent or focused on students than the ones they did remove.

Private Citizen

March 7th, 2013
1:32 pm

In other words, what is the number in terms of dollars, DeKalb taxpayers have so far paid to counsel for this challenge / defense?

DeKalb Inside Out

March 7th, 2013
4:54 pm

This new board is already putting up a wall of secrecy … this doesn’t bode well.

SACS criticized the board for talking to the public about how they feel on issues … no doubt … sunshine on the issues doesn’t work for SACS or the administration.

Soooo … the 3 board members left are obeying their masters. I repeat … this doesn’t bode well.

Jeff Bragg

March 7th, 2013
6:33 pm

Re: more $$ for Crawford Lewis (”who stands…@11:36″ and “catlady@12:52″). I have followed the shenanigans of the Boards and various admins for years. On this point, my guess is that the Board was buying Lewis’ loyal testimony in the Heery-Mitchell lawsuit. Now, ponder these possibilities: are we buying silence, suborning (encouraging) perjury, submitting to extortion, or all three?

Ole Guy

March 7th, 2013
6:50 pm

Who stands…your nom de plume invites laughter, for the children, despite political happy talk, are the very last consideration. This entire school board thing invites…no…BEGS skepticism at every turn. It is painfully obvious that taxpayer support of any-and-all things remotely associated with education is viewed simply as yet another cash cow ripe for the pickins.

SOMEday…you folks will wake up to realize that your kids are the very last in line to reap the last one tenth of one percent of every educational dollar. As I have so often exhorted to the teacher corps, you folks had better TAKE COMMAND of this entire educational show; it has already devolved into the “finest national circus” (no more “thank god for Mississippi”).

Past pools of “educational experts” have proven woefully dismal failures, yet you continue to allow yet more clowns into the arena.

concerned citizen

March 7th, 2013
8:22 pm

Melvin Johnson is poison to the school system. He has lived by silken words, so he thinks, and has been admired for being soft-spoken! The real truth is that he is not briight, has the lmited vocabulary of a man who knows nothing but does understand to stay quiet. I have watched him for decades and can say it’s an awful feeling to be under his “snupervision.” A real mean man! I have seen him stomp on teachers, parents, but not students, for he never does interact with students. Has not a clue who they are. Please tell me, why did he spend $20,000 to run for the board? He must go, now.

dekalbite@concerned citizen

March 7th, 2013
9:06 pm

“Please tell me, why did he spend $20,000 to run for the board? ”

When Tom Bowen left, the Friends and Family group needed someone to take his place. Just look at his campaign manager and the people supporting him. We’ll assume he voted for the lawsuit to keep Walker and the BOE members in place.

bu2

March 7th, 2013
9:26 pm

As they say, better to thought a fool and remain silent rather than speak up and remove all doubt. Sounds like Mr. Johnson has a lot more common sense than most of the board members who have been removed!

dekalbite@bu2

March 7th, 2013
9:52 pm

“Sounds like Mr. Johnson has a lot more common sense than most of the board members who have been removed!”

Except their silence is why Maureen said “The AJC continues to look at the circumstances under which the DeKalb school board approved the money for this legal challenge as there are a lot of questions about whether it met Sunshine law requirements.”

That doesn’t sound like good sense for the county, the school system or the students.

Mandella1099

March 7th, 2013
10:14 pm

Did anyone pick up on Marshall’s finger pointing:

“…we have a broken governance system. Not just the Board but at the Central Office, between the Board and the Central Office and, perhaps most importantly, between the Central Office and the schoolhouse.”

Wow Marshall, so the problem is really not with the Board, its between the main office and the schools? How do you know this? Been visiting schools a lot lately? – oh wait, he doesn’t do this as a Board member, right?

Keep the divisions alive in the district, and it will forever remain in the garbage….

Teacher Reader

March 7th, 2013
11:19 pm

The state board of ed and the governor made a huge mistake by not eliminating the entire board. The actions that the three members have shown from their voting to date show that they do not care about the kids and are as focused on the adults as Walker, et al.

As a former teacher in DeKalb, the worst teacher training I received was in DeKalb and I’ve taught in several other districts in several other states. I did not get the best, far from it. Why does the board get the best training, money for travel to training, money for training, and teachers must do it on their own?

worried about the numbers

March 7th, 2013
11:40 pm

@Mandella1099
as much as I disagree with paying that much money without guarantees, in this case Mr. Orson is right. He didn’t say ‘not the board’, he said ‘not just the board’. Communication IS broken within Central and between Central and the schoolhouse, I know this, and I’m only a parent. The other thing that’s broken is that there is no accountability, and not the least bit of pride in a job well done, among central office staff in many areas. I have encountered so much incompetence, just as a parent, it’s appaling. I personally would have hired such a firm with a contract that would pay them only about 25% up front and the rest only if they can prove success. But that’s me.

catlady

March 8th, 2013
8:18 am

How long will the hogs be allowed to feast at the trough? I repeat, who is kin or BF to whom in the law firm?

I wonder if it was a huge mistake to let ANY of the board members remain, as the new ones seem to have observed and learned well from the former.

And the new superintendent? How about that he post his schedule online, so we can see how much time is being devoted to helping the students?

Disgusted in Dekalb

March 8th, 2013
9:08 am

Catlady’s idea about posting Thurmond’s schedule is a great one. I fear that he has been hired (at a quarter of a million TAXPAYER dollars) to simply be the board’s PR person (how many politicians and organizations has he “reached out to”?), and that Ramona Tyson is the de facto superintendent.

Chamblee Dad

March 8th, 2013
10:44 am

@catlady & disgusted nice idea & the general concept of true transparency, would go far to rebuild trust or destroy it. These first few weeks will telling.

dekalbite@Disgusted in DeKalb

March 8th, 2013
11:05 am

“Thurmond’s schedule is a great one. I fear that he has been hired (at a quarter of a million TAXPAYER dollars) to simply be the board’s PR person………Ramona Tyson is the de facto superintendent.”

Let’s hope not, since many of the actions Ramona Tyson took as superintendent are specifically cited in the SACS report as those that put DeKalb on probation. How would we ever get off probation as she supports the same actions that put us there? If she didn’t understand how detrimental her actions were to DeKalb Schools then, how would she understand now? Read the SACS report. So many of the complaints are regarding actions she took. Has Thurmond even read this report and looked to see under whose superintendency these actions took place? Parents need to quiz him on the SACS report to see if he has really read it and does he know the time frame the incorrect actions took place.

For example, the SACS report cites the layoff of 200 paraprofessionals – an action taken without regard to the impact this would have on the academic achievement of DeKalb students in the early grades. This was Ramona Tyson’s budget recommendation, pushed through over the pleas of the primary grade level teachers and their paraprofessionals – the very employees responsible for the primary grade students’ academic achievement.

Mr. Thurmond should go over the SACS report and look at every infraction – date by date – superintendent decision by superintendent decision – to see who (which superintendent) made the decisions and how these decisions negatively impacted student achievement and how SACS correctly labels these unacceptable infractions. He may want to reconsider Ms. Tyson’s advise. mShe apparently did not not understand how her actions of saving the highly paid non teaching staff by laying off lower level staff who actually teach the students and lowering the teachers’ pay so we cannot attract and retain competent teachers would negatively impact student achievement. The teachers told her, but she would not listen. In the end the students lost. Now the entire county is losing.

B. Smith

March 8th, 2013
8:23 pm

Maureen, can you forward some recommendations for selecting new board members to the board selecting committee? If anyone else agrees with my suggestion(s), please add your voice.
1. Member cannot be a convicted felon
2. Must be current in their property taxes and remain current to become and remain a board member
3. Must pledge against nepotism (with explicit details spelled out with which family members are included)
4. Must agree to upholding the ethical standards as deemed by the current ethics rules and any future rules of the board and acknowledge that they can be removed through a due process that may or may not include removal by the the constituents if their behavior is considered so detrimental that it puts the school and the county in grave jeopardy.
5. If they should seek legal counsel against removal from the board or take any legal action for their personal interest, that they do it at their expense and not the tax payers
6. In applicant who has served in any governmental capacity and performance was deemed grossly negligent, sub par or payments made such as settlements or payment of lawsuits for inappropriate or unlawful behavior should not be considered for the position.
7. Must agree to be open and transparent in their governance.

Another suggestion that I would like to make for future board compensation. I would like to suggest that the compensation be changed to $500 per month plus incidental i.e., modest meal while traveling with lunch not to exceed $25 and dinner not to exceed $50 per day. This will ensure those who truly have passion for the children will apply and not those who see this as income that they depend on to pay their bills. One suspended board member BOE check is currently being garnished due to the default of payment on many of his outstanding bills. There are some boards who pay their board members this amount. I would also suggest their be term limits of no more than 2 terms in a life time.

B. Smith

March 8th, 2013
8:26 pm

correction: “there be term limits”