ATLANTA — Two members of the Warren County school board will be reinstated to office after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday that former Gov. Sonny Perdue did not have the authority to remove them two years ago.
The state’s highest court said that Clara Roberts, Cecil Brown and Charles Culver should not have been ousted after the 800-student district in east Georgia was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in June 2010 over issues with the school board.
Roberts’ term has expired, but Brown and Culver will be reinstated to the board. Their terms expire at the end of the year.
“It vindicates exactly what my clients have been saying all along,” said E. Brian Watkins, an attorney for the three board members. “We’re happy the court stopped an abuse of power by the governor, local citizens and SACS.”
Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the Georgia attorney general’s office, said officials are reviewing the order.
Warren County schools Superintendent Carole Jean Carey said Monday the two members appointed to the board after the ouster have “no choice but to step down.”
Carey said the Supreme Court’s decision means that the board members will be reinstated.
“The Supreme Court did not question the findings of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools or the Administrative Law Offices,” Carey said in an e-mail to The Augusta Chronicle. “The narrow ruling meant that this was a misapplication of statute 45-10-3 which allows the Governor to remove people from offices established by General Statute. Board member offices are established by the Constitution and do not fall under this statute.”
Carey said the county school system was not involved in the lawsuit. It was between the governor’s office and the board members who were removed, she said.
Board members did not immediately return a request for comment.
The ouster in Warren County came two years after Perdue removed four members of the Clayton County school board over accreditation issues. Since then, a new state law has been passed that allows the governor to remove school board members – without having to go through administrative courts – if the district is at risk of losing accreditation.
It is not clear whether the court’s ruling affects the new law.
Attorneys for the state and the private citizens who asked the governor to oust Roberts, Brown and Culver argued that Perdue was within his rights to remove the board members because an administrative court found they violated the state ethics code by making discriminatory comments about potential hires and by refusing to sign the board’s ethics policy. Watkins said the policy is “archaic” and “vague” and his clients didn’t want to sign a document they didn’t understand.
Rob Fortson, the attorney who represented the Warren County residents who asked the governor to remove the school board members, called the court’s ruling “disappointing.”
“It’s problematic that it does not appear under this law that the state has the ability to help out citizens when school board members essentially take school systems off the rails,” Fortson said.
The district’s full accreditation was reinstated in 2011.
Staff Writer Steve Crawford contributed to this report.