Days before a showdown that could lead to the ouster of the DeKalb County school board, the leader of the embattled group announced he is relinquishing his role as point man.
“I will be stepping down as chair, and we will elect a new chair,” Eugene Walker announced Monday. Also Monday, Walker and four others voted to pay former Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker and his law firm at least $150,000 for “governance training.”
Both moves are calculated to placate the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which determined that the board led by Walker had mismanaged finances, engaged in nepotism and otherwise abused power while neglecting responsibilities as academic performance suffered.
SACS put DeKalb on probation in December and threatened to strip accreditation altogether, triggering a Georgia Board of Education hearing Thursday that could lead to the suspension of Walker and the other eight DeKalb board members.
Walker received prominent mention in a scalding report by SACS, which noted that he’d made a hiring recommendation to former superintendent Cheryl Atkinson. Walker, who will remain as a school board member, was holding the chairman’s title by default, after the fractious board failed to muster a majority vote for a new chairman earlier this year. He had been selected by majority last year, but the position is up for renewal annually.
Walker’s decision to step down came as a welcome surprise to parents such as Karen Zeliff, who has two sons in DeKalb schools, the eldest a junior at Lakeside High. He could face diminished college prospects if the district loses accreditation.
“Finally, thank God,” Zeliff said when she heard of Walker’s decision. He was “definitely part of the problem,” she said. “I think he very clearly had the ‘my school’ attitude.”
SACS criticized the DeKalb board members for thinking about their own political turf before the needs of the district as a whole.
Marcia Coward, president of the DeKalb County Council of PTAs, called Walker’s decision “a step in the right direction.”
The meeting to name a successor could occur Wednesday evening.
It’s unclear how the board’s decision to hire Baker and his firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge to address SACS’ concerns will go over with SACS, since excessive legal fees were among the agency’s concerns.
The decision was controversial: the DeKalb board narrowly approved hiring Baker and his firm “to develop and facilitate a correction action plan.” The item initially failed but passed 5-3 with one abstention after board member Sarah Copelin-Wood switched her vote. (She had abstained on the first go around.)
The contract was presented as a “governance training proposal,” which led board member Nancy Jester of Dunwoody to question the timing. The board might soon be removed, she noted, and a future board might not need the same training.
“Perhaps, had we done this earlier, we might be in a different spot,” Jester said.
Because of DeKalb’s “financial situation,” the firm “will only charge a flat fee of $50,000 per month,” according to an unsigned agreement distributed after the vote.
When told of the decision, state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, judged it a waste of taxpayer money given that there are other, less expensive, training options available. “The Georgia School Boards Association … could do this and it doesn’t cost $150,000. This is not rocket science,” said Millar, who is the past chairman of the senate education committee.
Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond said the cost would be paid out of general operating funds, but school board member Marshall Orson asked that the money come out of funds earmarked for legal fees “so that there is no net impact on the budget.”
Thurmond said he recommended Baker because the law firm has a corporate governance center that counsels leaders across the country. Hiring the firm to address the SACS concerns “will help to buttress our case before the state board of education,” Thurmond said. However, he said, Baker will have no role in Thursday’s hearing.
It’s a crucial hearing for the DeKalb board because it is likely to produce a recommendation to Gov. Nathan Deal. Under a 2011 law, Deal can suspend the local board if the state school board recommends it. Former DeKalb District Attorney Bob Wilson is representing DeKalb in that matter.
“We’re not hiring them for legal advice,” Thurmond said of Baker’s team. “We have plenty of lawyers in the building; we don’t need another one of those.” Baker’s team includes Eric Tanenblatt, who was chief of staff for former Gov. Sonny Perdue. They will provide “technical assistance,” education and training on governance issues, Thurmond said.
The unsigned contract calls for renegotiation of fees after the three months, when Baker’s team would move to the “implementation phase.” That’s assuming the school board that hired them is still around.