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DeKalb County school board sues to avoid suspension, eliciting outrage from parents and employees

DeKalb County school board sues to avoid suspension, eliciting outrage from parents and employees

Richard Belcher reports

DeKalb County school board sues to avoid suspension, eliciting outrage from parents and employees

The DeKalb County school district filed a lawsuit Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to derail a process that could unseat all nine members of the school board.

The action, filed in Fulton County Superior Court by an attorney paid with taxpayer funds, elicited outrage from parents and other observers. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order to prevent a hearing by the Georgia Board of Education on Thursday.

The state board could recommend suspension of the DeKalb board, giving Gov. Nathan Deal authority to remove the DeKalb members under the provisions of a 2011 law.

DeKalb’s suit, filed by the district and outgoing school board chairman Eugene Walker, claims the law is unconstitutional because it authorizes removal of local elected officials “without any individualized finding of misconduct.” The law allows the state to unseat board members who preside over districts that an accrediting agency has placed on probation, as happened in DeKalb last year.

Walker did not return a call for comment, and interim DeKalb superintendent Michael Thurmond had no comment about the suit. “This was a board decision,” Thurmond said, referring questions to Walker. Walker announced Monday that he would step aside as chairman and remain on the board.

Deal said litigation may only prolong the pain in DeKalb, Georgia’s third largest school district with nearly 100,000 students.

“The longer this is drawn out, the more protracted it becomes and the more the story becomes one that concerns people everywhere,” Deal said.

The state’s case against the DeKalb board is based on a December report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accused the local board of financial mismanagement, nepotism and other failures of oversight while academic performance languished. The SACS report was based largely on anonymous sources whose claims cannot be independently corroborated. The agency threatened to strip the district of accreditation altogether if the school board fails to address the concerns, and the state is treating the report as evidence.

The lawsuit was filed by Decatur attorney Robert Wilson. He had no comment about the case after arriving at the courthouse Tuesday afternoon to get a court date.

As of the close of business, Judge Kelly Amanda Lee had not scheduled one. It’s unclear if she’ll do so prior to the state board hearing.

Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said the state school board will meet with DeKalb as scheduled at 8 a.m. Thursday, “until we hear otherwise.”

A similar lawsuit filed by a majority of the school board members in Sumter County halted a similar state hearing. Board member Kevin Pless and other unnamed members sued in Fulton Superior Court in November. Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane granted a temporary injunction, ordering the state board not to convene the hearing. The Sumter lawsuit was transferred to Judge Shawn Ellen Lagrua, and no court date is set.

State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, noted that one of SACS’ concerns about DeKalb was excessive legal expenses in a system that ran a $16 million deficit last year. He judged this latest move a “selfish” effort to cling to power.

“I would like to know who voted in favor of this motion because obviously it’s all about them and not about 100,000 children,” said Millar, the former chairman of the Senate education committee. “All this delay does is increase the likelihood of loss of accreditation,” Millar said. “How selfish can people be?”

If there was a public vote, it didn’t occur in public Monday — the most recent open meeting of the DeKalb board. During that meeting, the board voted to go into a private session to discuss an undisclosed legal matter. Thurmond, the former state labor commissioner who has been interim superintendent since early this month, said he knew of no public vote on the suit.

Bill Armstrong, a father of three children in DeKalb schools, called the lawsuit “an outrageous evasion” of the school board’s duty.

“I don’t understand why they all don’t resign,” said Armstrong, of Chamblee. “They are clearly trying to save their jobs instead of the school system.”

Teachers advocate Dave Schutten predicted employee anger over the legal costs. The president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators said teachers haven’t seen pay raises in about half a decade.

“This is crazy,” Schutten said. “People are going to be outraged.”

The DeKalb board voted to hire Wilson and his firm Wilson, Morton & Downs earlier this month. Wilson’s mandate: deal with the state board of education hearing “and/or related proceedings or actions.”

Wilson has a history of public work. He is a former DeKalb district attorney. After leaving office, he helped lead a state investigation that alleged widespread test cheating in Atlanta Public Schools. State taxpayers paid millions for that work. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2011 that Wilson and another lawyer —former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers — billed $2.2 million for about a dozen lawyers on the case for about a year. They all billed at $160 an hour, Bowers said at the time, far below his normal rate of $630 an hour.

Wilson and his associates are to be paid $250 an hour in DeKalb — for a time period that is not limited by the contract. It’s unclear how much the case has cost so far. The district responded earlier this month to an open-records request by the AJC seeking Wilson’s invoices by saying none had been filed.

Allegra Johnson, a mother of three in Dunwoody, said the lawsuit is another diversion of scarce funds from the classroom.

Teacher cutbacks have led to bigger class sizes. Her kindergartner shares a room with 25 other students, and the teacher has no help, other than parent volunteers.

“What will it take to stop this board of education from spending the money that should be spent on children,” Johnson said. “All the money that should be spent on children is being spent on this board.”

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  • There is light at the end of the prolonged wet and/or cloudy spell we have been going through. As I’ve been advertising on the radio for a few days now a prolonged dry spell is expected to begin Sunday and last through next Thursday, with modest thunderstorm chances returning Friday and next weekend. By the way, from this long distance, 4th of July weather looks pretty typical for the Metro, very warm and humid with around a 30% chance of an afternoon or evening thunderstorm. But first things first. We are still in a warm very deep moist tropical air mass. And while we get to see some sun today and tomorrow, we are not done with rain just yet, nor the threat of an isolated severe storm or small, weak tornado. Listen for details on the weather today this weekend and next 5 days on the radio in my reports for updates. Or check at Click on the MellishMeter on the WSB Radio homepage for my 5 day forecast in writing anytime on any digital device. Due to the tropical nature of the air in place, more heavy downpours are likely in spots late today and overnight into tomorrow and that’s on already saturated soils, so a FLASH FLOOD WATCH has been issued for all of Metro Atlanta north of Griffin. Take note that trees may fall in the wet root zones without new rain or without high wind. Also bear in mind that in tropical systems lightning and thunder is often at a minimum, even in storms capable of producing damaging straight line winds or a tornado, so you may get little or no warning. You can see what’s left of Tropical Storm Cindy and the approach of a front from the north. MID-DAY FRIDAY: FRIDAY END OF DAY: FRIDAY EVENING: SATURDAY AM: END OF DAY SATURDAY: SUNDAY MORNING: HIGHEST FLOODING RISK FRIDAY: Flash Flood Watch 2pm Friday-8pm Saturday FRIDAY SEVERE WEATHER RISK:   TORNADO WATCH UNTIL 9PM Atlanta time: The remnants of Cindy will push eastward, and interact with shear axis/weak convergence boundary through Saturday. This shear axis/weak convergence zone will slowly sag south across the metro area through Saturday, serving to focus areas of precipitation. As with any tropical system, the potential for severe weather will exist. Especially for isolated tornadoes within any rain-bands. Areas roughly along and west of the Interstate 85 corridor will have the best potential for any severe weather through tonight. However, if good heating occurs across southern areas today, an isolated severe thunderstorm is not out of the question there, too. End of day Friday predicted (simulated) radar from a couple models: A welcome change is headed our way in the long term as drier air moves into the region, with lower than normal temperatures continuing and lower than normal humidity moving in with a less than normal rain odds Sunday through next Thursday. FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER @MellishMeterWSB
  • Family and friends are preparing for the funeral for a 16-year-old killed in a crash in Cherokee County. Police said a 17-year-old driver fell asleep at the wheel on Hightower Road and traveled into an embankment and hit a tree. Mahlon Thornton died at the scene. The driver has a broken arm. Family members said Mahlon and his friend had been up all night fishing Sunday into Monday. 'They stayed up all night fishing. They were tired and they were probably going pretty fast,' said Cynthia Decker, Mahlon's guardian. Mahlon moved in with Decker three years ago. TRENDING STORIES: Sheriff reduces jail time for Georgia inmates who saved officer Police: Woman attacked at gas pump, turns tables on would-be robbers Homeowner stabbed to death during home invasion 'I'm going to miss that hug in the morning and that hug at night and that hug before he left,' she said. Deputies are still investigating the crash. 'I just want these kids to understand they're not invincible. They gotta rest. They gotta take care of themselves,' Decker said. Mahlon's parents said they forgive the driver. 'No blame, no blame. It could have easily been Mahlon driving,' said the victim's mother, Jenelle Thornton. Mahlon's funeral is Saturday in West Cobb. His family said they are finding comfort through faith. 'Our ministry has just begun because of this event. This will reshape us. We have no idea how to comprehend,' the victim's father, Wayne Thornton said.
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  • Mike Foltynewicz won his fourth straight decision at home, shortstop Dansby Swanson made a pair of outstanding defensive plays in the ninth inning and the Atlanta Braves beat the Milwaukee Brewers 5-4 on Friday night for their sixth win in seven games. Foltynewicz (5-5) gave up one run, four hits and three walks in five innings with nine strikeouts, improving to 4-0 with a 2.17 ERA in his last five starts at SunTrust Park. Brandon Phillips homered and drove in two runs, and Arodys Vizcaino earned his first save since last June 26 against the New York Mets. Eric Thames doubled leading off the ninth, and Domingo Santana hit a two-hopper to the second-base side of Swanson, who spun and threw out Thames at third. Travis Shaw flied out to the left-field warning track as Santana advanced, and Manny Pina lined out to Swanson, who made a diving backhand catch in the shortstop hole, for the final out. Atlanta third baseman Johan Camargo went to a knee for a backhand stab of pinch-hitter Jesus Aguilar's hard-hit grounder in the eighth and threw to second base, starting an inning-ending double play. Foltynewicz enjoyed some rare success against left-handed batters, who were hitting .348 against him coming in. He held Eric Sogard, Eric Thames, Travis Shaw and switch-hitter Nick Franklin to a combined 1 for 9 with two walks and four strikeouts. Jimmy Nelson (5-4) allowed four runs, six hits and three walks in five innings. He had gone 4-1 with a 2.24 ERA in his previous nine starts. Atlanta, which has won three straight, took a 2-0 lead in the first when Phillips homered and Tyler Flowers got an RBI on what could have been an inning-ending double-play grounder. Sogard fielded the grounder to second and flipped to shortstop Orlando Arcia, who dropped the ball. Second-base umpire Ed Hickox ruled Matt Adams out at second, but the call was overturned on video review, causing Arcia to be given an error. Milwaukee made two errors, raising its NL-leading total to 58. Keon Bronxton's 12th homer cut the Brewers' deficit in the fourth, but the Braves opened a 4-1 lead in the fifth when Phillips hit an RBI double and scored on Flowers' single. Santana had an RBI single off Sam Freeman in the seventh, and Swanson singled in the run against Brent Suter in the bottom half. Arcia hit a two-run double against Jose Ramirez in the eighth. ON THE MEND, QUICKLY After a CT scan and meeting with Braves team physician Dr. Gary Lourie, Freddie Freeman said his broken left wrist is 80-90 percent healed, up from 50 percent last week. The improvement led Freeman to move up the timetable of his return nearly two weeks on July 6 at NL East-leading Washington. Freeman wants to play three to four games on a rehab assignment and return as the starting third baseman. TRAINER'S ROOM Brewers: LF Lewis Brinson was in pain after getting hit on the left hand by a fastball from Ramirez in the eighth but stayed in the game. Braves: LF Matt Kemp was held out of the lineup to rest his left hamstring. Kemp left Thursday's 12-11 win over San Francisco after singling in eight-run fifth inning. He missed two games last weekend with a similar injury and was on the 10-day DL in April with a strained right hamstring. UP NEXT Brewers: RHP Matt Garza (3-3), scheduled to start Saturday, has won two of eight starts with a 4.56 ERA against Atlanta. Braves: RHP R.A. Dickey (5-5), slated to pitch for Altanta, is 2-1 with a 3.64 ERA in four starts and two relief appearances against Milwaukee. ___ More AP baseball:
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