ATLANTA — A federal judge on Monday allowed the Georgia governor’s removal of two-thirds of the school board members in a suburban Atlanta school district to move forward, although legal questions remain.
After the DeKalb County school district was placed on probation by an accrediting agency, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal last week signed an order suspending six of the district’s nine members and appointed a panel to find replacements. The district and the former school board chairman filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the law that allows the governor to remove local school board members.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story’s order denied a request by the school district and the former board chairman for a preliminary injunction, which would have blocked the board members’ removal while the legal challenge played out.
“The harm from the loss of accreditation to the School District and the resulting harm to the students in the district are profound,” Story wrote. “To permit the Board Members to continue to serve while their individual claims are resolved risks substantial consequences for the School District and its students. The Court finds that this risk of harm far outweighs the risks to the Board Members.”
Story also said he plans to refer questions about the law to the Georgia Supreme Court.
In his order, Story also directs the two sides to work together to come up with questions to submit to the high court. If the two sides can’t agree on questions within 10 days, each side is to submit its own questions.
“The court’s decision today will allow us to take the next steps toward protecting the futures of DeKalb’s students and maintaining the school system’s accreditation,” Deal said in a statement.
“Time is of the essence because we cannot have this cloud hang over the county or the state,” he added.
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens also applauded Story’s decision.
“Judge Story correctly recognized that the students in the DeKalb school system must come first,” Olens said in a statement. “I appreciate Judge Story’s careful thought, hard work, and swift decision in this time-sensitive matter.”
New board chairman Melvin Johnson said in a statement that he respects Story’s decision and stressed the importance of having a board in place.
“I pledge my full and complete cooperation with the panel of citizens Gov. Nathan Deal has identified to select new board members, and I trust they will work expeditiously to ensure we have a governing board capable of addressing the pressing needs of our school system,” Johnson said.
When reached by phone Monday, former board chairman Eugene Walker said he didn’t have a comment.
Bob Wilson, a lawyer for the school district and for Walker, did not immediately return an e-mail and a phone message seeking comment.
Story’s order Monday follows a Friday hearing in which he heard arguments from lawyers for both sides.
Lawyers for the school district argued at the hearing that the state Legislature overreached when it gave the governor the power to remove elected officials and said their removal represented a serious lack of due process.
A lawyer for the state argued that the state Constitution allows legislators to enact such a law and that the governor is within his power to remove the board members and appoint replacements. The state’s lawyer also argued that due process was provided, as the board members were duly notified of all the steps and have access to recourse.
DeKalb County is the state’s third-largest school district, serving about 99,000 students. It was placed on probation in December by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools following a six-month investigation. In a report, the accreditation agency cited long-term leadership issues including nepotism, fiscal mismanagement, inappropriate micromanagement and intimidation within the district. The district is on probation through the end of this year.
The State Board of Education voted unanimously to recommend the removal of the six elected board members who were in office during the time when the alleged problems took place, but the three board members who took office in January were to be allowed to stay. The governor last week announced he was following that advice and appointed a five-member panel to choose potential replacement board members.
The law allows the governor to suspend the members of a local board of education if a school or school system is put in a probationary status immediately preceding loss of accreditation. The ousted school board members can petition the governor for reinstatement.