ATLANTA - The State Board of Education late Thursday ended a marathon hearing into problems at the DeKalb County School Board by recommending Governor Nathan Deal suspend with pay six elected officials in a move that some fear will plunge one of the state’s biggest school systems into chaos.
At the end of a 14-hour hearing, the State Board voted 11-0 to suggest Governor Deal replace DeKalb Board members Eugene Walker, Pamela Speaks, Sarah Copelin-Wood, Jesse Cunningham, Jr., Donna Edler and Nancy Jester.
The newest members of the DeKalb Board, who were not serving at the time the district was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, will be allowed to remain. They are Jim McMahan, Melvin Johnson and Marshall Orson.
“Based on the leadership and governance of this board as a whole… would I want my children in DeKalb County Schools?” asked State Board member Mike Royal. “The answer is no.”
Royal and his fellow state educators made their decision despite impassioned pleas from DeKalb board members and their newly-hired superintendent Michael Thurmond. They worried aloud that the ousted leaders would continue to meddle in school system affairs. Under the recommendation approved at the end of the marathon hearing, Governor Deal would have the ability only to suspend those six DeKalb school board members rather than remove them from office altogether.
“Then what I will have in DeKalb County,” said Thurmond, “is 15 board members – six appointed, three still serving and six others elected by the people. The law does not prevent from… doing any and everything they might see as appropriate as it relates to public education. I can manage nine. Fifteen is an issue.”
But Thurmond may not have to worry about that.
There are currently two lawsuits pending – one in Fulton County court, the other in federal court – aimed at halting the process of suspending the six DeKalb School Board members. One of them, Eugene Walker, wasted no time in indicating he plans to fight on.
“I’m still depending on the legal system to get the opportunity to do my job, that’s all. The people elected me to do a job and I’m going to do it until such time as a judge tells me I can’t,” Walker said.
The threat of lawsuits and the possibility that the school board will take on six new members perplexed two of the three who will remain in office.
“There’s still uncertainty,” said Jim McMahan. “The board has already filed to challenge the constitutionality of (the State Board’s recommendation). That will be decided next week.”
“It certainly adds to the complexity of what we’re doing,” said Marshall Orson, who, like McMahan, took office in January. “The governor has to act upon it. If the governor follows the recommendation, there’s still the lawsuits that have been filed and so, early on, I think there’s the chance of great chaos in the system.”
Still, parents attending the hearing were pleased with the State Board’s decision.
“The State Board couldn’t risk not getting this right,” said Jennifer Hatfield.