U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story denied the board members’ motion today for a preliminary injunction today and lifted his Feb. 23 temporary restraining order that prevented Deal from replacing them.
"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 districts and its students. The Court finds that this risk of harm far outweighs the risks to the board members."
The suspended board members are Sarah Copelin-Wood, District 3; Jesse “Jay” Cunningham, District 5; Donna Edler, District 7; Nancy Jester, District 1; Dr. Pam Speaks, District 8; and Dr. Eugene Walker, District 9.
DeKalb School Board Chairman Dr. Melvin Johnson said he appreciates the judge providing an opinion in a timely manner and pledged his full and complete cooperation with the panel that is picking new board members.
"Time is of the essence," Johnson said in a statement Monday. "It is essential that we have a governing board capable of meeting the needs of our administration, students, parents and taxpayers. Equally important is having a board in place to work with the administration on ensuring that the district regains full accreditation."
Story said that the board members did not satisfy the requirements for a preliminary injunction based on the 14th Amendment claims.
Board members had challenged the constitutionality of Georgia law 20-2-73, enacted in 2011. The law gives the governor the authority to suspend local school board members.
The Georgia Board of Education recommended the suspensions after a marathon 14-hour hearing on Feb. 28.
That hearing followed the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placing the DeKalb school district on accreditation probation on Dec. 17 for "dysfunctional management, nepotism, declining student performance, intimtidation of staff and administrators, and financial mismanagement."
Reacting to the ruling, Deal said he will move forward with replacing the board members. He also announced that Robert L. Brown, who serves on the Georgia Department of Transportation Board, will join Brad Bryant as a second liaison to the DeKalb School Board to monitor progress.
“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," he said. "I agree with the judge’s opinion that ‘the harm from the loss of accreditation to the School District and the resulting harm to the students in the district are profound.’ ”
Given the gravity of this situation, Deal said he greatly appreciates Brown, who is the owner of the Decatur architectural firm RL Brown & Associates, accepting his request to serve as a liaison to the DeKalb board.
"He and Brad Bryant will make a great team to work with me, the DeKalb board and Superintendent Michael Thurmond to make sure that the system puts the students first,” the governor said.
Walker, the former chairman of the DeKalb School Board and one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, said he was dismayed but not deterred by Story's ruling.
"I respectfully but wholeheartedly disagree with the judge's decision, and I plan to continue to seek justice through the court system until this matter with the governor is resolved," he said in a statement.
Walker said that Deal is using SACS and the state Board of Education as a hammer and chisel to chip away at the progress made by African Americans.
"It is morally abhorrent to sit idly by and allow the usurping of the one-man one-vote rights that has been bought and paid with the blood, sweat and tears of my generation," he said.
Walker said that none of the board members, including himself, has committed a crime or misappropriated, misused or misspent funds entrusted to them.
"Quite the opposite," he said. "We have served with honesty and integrity. In fact, this board under the severe stress by the downturn of the economy has worked tirelessly to provide a quality education to our children with a minimum amount of adverse impact on the homeowners of this county. It has not been easy, and there has not always been a consensus. There is no crime in that; rather it is an inherent ingredient in the democratic process."
AdvancedEd, the parent company of SACS, said Story’s ruling will allow the system to move forward and "to put in place a Board of Education with its priorities appropriately placed on student achievement."
Mark A. Elgart, the group's president and CEO, said their greatest hope is to help the DeKalb County School District find its way back to being one of the highest-performing school systems in the southeastern United States.
"That was still possible as late as the 1990s, and it’s still possible today,” he said.
Story wrote that though the DeKalb board members have refuted some of SACS' allegations, the violations "were so egregious" that the district was placed on "accredited probation," the level of accreditation immediately preceding loss of accreditation.
Story also ruled that the issues raised by board members’ state law claims should be certified to the Supreme Court of Georgia and that the parties confer in an effort to agree upon certified questions for submissions to the Supreme Court of Georgia.
“If the parties are unable to agree within 10 days of the entry of this order, each party shall submit proposed certified questions to the Court,” the order said.
The judge said that the school district has no interest in any particular person serving on the school board.
“Rather, the interest of the School District is that a duly constituted board be in place so that it can conduct business. The School Board Suspension Statute assures continuity of operations through appointments by the Governor to fill vacancies created by the suspensions," Story said. "Thus, the loss of any property interest by the School District is not apparent to the Court,” and would lack a key element in its 14th Amendment claim.
Story said the Court finds that the SACS report provided the board members adequate notice, and that suspension with pay ameliorated some of the due process concerns expressed by school board member and former board chair Dr. Eugene Walker. He pointed out that a hearing was also held.
A five-member nominating panel appointed by Deal is taking applications for candidates to replace the board members through 5 p.m. on March 6. The panel chaired by state School Board member Kenneth Mason is scheduled to meet on Friday.
Interested applicants should submit their name, contact information, home address, seat they are applying for, resume or brief biography, and statement of interest to email@example.com.