Dr. Melvin Johnson (Courtesy Friends of Dr. Melvin Johnson)
Gov. Nathan Deal, (R) Georgia, Atlanta, February 19, 2013
DeKalb County School Board's Lawsuit Against Gov. Deal
DeKalb County School Board
Attorney Robert Wilson
DECATUR, Ga. -- The DeKalb County School Board elected Dr. Melvin Johnson as chairperson of the embattled school board on Wednesday afternoon during an executive session.
Before being named chairman, Johnson, a retired DeKalb County Deputy Superintendent, represented District 6 which includes feeder schools to both Stone Mountain and Stephenson high schools.
Early Wednesday, DeKalb County's controversial school board members, faced with the possibility that Gov. Nathan Deal may remove them from office, have suddenly decided to fight him.
The board members have been taking steps to sue Gov. Deal to try to stop the process that could lead to their removal.
Their lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Fulton Superior Court, just a block from the Georgia State Capitol, claims that the state law empowering the governor in certain circumstances to replace elected school board members violates the state constitution.
The nine school board members are usually fighting each other, and their infighting is one reason the school district could lose accreditation at the end of the year. Losing accreditation would threaten the futures of thousands of school students.
The accrediting agency, AdvancED, has already placed the district's accreditation on probation, and told the board to correct the specific problems that the agency has listed.
As a result of the probation, the State Board of Education is authorized to intervene, and hold a hearing in which the DeKalb board members can try to prove that they should be able to remain in office to fix the problems they're accused of causing.
The state board makes a recommendation to the governor, and the Governor decides whether to replace the board with an interim board.
That hearing is scheduled to take place on Thursday.
The DeKalb school board asked a judge to issue a restraining order to stop Thursday's hearing, and to keep the DeKalb board in place while the lawsuit moves forward.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Amanda Lee denied that request on a technicality -- the law requires five days of notice to suspend a proceeding.
According to Lee, the rest of the lawsuit can proceed through the courts.
In the meantime, Deal weighed in on the lawsuit and whether he has the right to step in if necessary.
"It's the only remedy that we currently have to be able to deal with situations such as this one," he said Tuesday evening.
Gov. Deal said he had not yet decided, anyway, whether to remove the DeKalb School Board.
"The [State] School Board was holding the hearing on Thursday, and after they had the hearing they would then make recommendations to me, and we would have acted based on their recommendations."
The governor said he hopes the courts will not grant DeKalb's request for a restraining order, and, instead, allow Thursday's hearing to proceed.
"I think the longer you leave this [situation in DeKalb] in a state of uncertainty, the greater the process of harm that comes. All of us should be focused on what's good for the children in the DeKalb school system.... I don't see anything good that has happened up to this point. I was hopeful that we could dispose of the matter in an expeditious fashion, but it appears it may be prolonged" by the lawsuit.
The DeKalb School Board hired former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert Wilson to file the lawsuit for them and represent them.
Wilson, along with former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers, recently led the state's investigation of cheating in the Atlanta school system. They were hired by Deal's predecessor, Sonny Perdue. Now Wilson is suing Deal on behalf of Atlanta's neighboring school district, DeKalb.
Wilson had not returned calls from 11Alive News as of Tuesday night.
But his lawsuit says no good can come from the governor replacing the elected school board with an unelected, lame-duck board. That, says the lawsuit, would be worse for the school children than what the current board's critics claim would result from leaving the current board in place.
No one was saying Tuesday how much money in taxpayer funds the board members are paying Wilson to challenge the state law and fight their removal from office.
The spokesman for DeKalb County Schools, Jeff Dickerson, had not responded to messages from 11Alive News as of Tuesday night.
The President of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, David Schutten, criticized the board for spending taxpayer funds to file, and proceed with, the lawsuit.
"We are deeply disappointed and angry that the DeKalb Board of Education is using taxpayer dollars to fund a lawsuit challenging the law allowing the Governor to remove them," Schutten wrote in an email to 11Alive News on Tuesday. "Employees have taken pay cuts for many years, and class sizes have increased. Virtually everyone in DeKalb County is outraged by their hiring another [outside] law firm to help them with training [to try to avoid losing accreditation], and now, by their filing this lawsuit. They have lost the confidence of the citizens and voters of DeKalb County. They are tone deaf. Many citizens are already talking about launching recall elections."
After Johnson was named chair, board members immediately went into an executive session.