Six school board members were suspended on Feb. 25 by Gov. Nathan Deal, who followed the recommendation of the Georgia Board of Education. The suspended board members are Sarah Copelin-Wood, District 3; Jesse "Jay" Cunningham, Dist. 5; Donna Edler, Dist. 7; Nancy Jester, Dist. 1. Dr. Pam Speaks, Dist. 8; and Dr. Eugene Walker, Dist. 9.
Deal named a nominating committee to find replacements for him to appoint to finish their terms of office.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the district on probation for governance problems, financial mismanagement and alleged nepotism. The state board made the recommendation to suspend after a hearing on the SACS charges Feb. 21.
Friday's hearing dealt only with the constitutionality of Georgia statute 20-2-73, the law that gives the governor the authority to unseat local school board members.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story heard the cases for and against the law but refused to issue a ruling at the end of the hearing, saying he will "make a decision as quickly as possible after careful consideration."
DeKalb's lead attorney Bob Wilson argued that the 2011 law violates the state constitution and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which demands due process when stripping away property rights or removing an elected official from office.
Wilson said the the state was wrong to base its suspension decision on the opinion of an "unelected and unaccountable" private entity such as SACS. He said the Alpharetta accrediting agency with its vague standards disenfranchised DeKalb residents who voted the board members into office and could have removed them in a recall.
The state's lead attorney Stefan Ritter said the Georgia law is constitutional because it does provide due process. Ritter said the DeKalb board received a fair hearing on Feb. 21 that lasted 14 hours and each suspended board member is entitled to an administrative appeal where each one can petition for reinstatement.
Wilson told reporters he believes Story will be thorough and even-handed in reaching a decision.
"I don't know how he will rule, but I believe he will do everything he can to make sure this law is constitutional." Wilson said after the hearing.
"This process will not be long and drawn out because this judge recognizes the importance of moving swiftly."
But Wilson said the process of removing officials provided for in the law can take 60 to 150 days.
Both sides worked all week to reach a compromise that would have averted the court hearing and would have allowed some or all of the board members to resign instead of being suspended. But those talks broke down Friday morning. The reason why is not clear, though board member Eugene Walker on Thursday said he and other members were determined not to resign and committed to getting a definitve ruling on whether the law is constitutional