The saga of the DeKalb County school board isn’t likely to end any time soon. While the board met Monday to discuss its budget, its fate seemed more precarious than the district’s finances.
On Monday morning, attorneys argued before the Georgia Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the state law that led to the removal of board members. But the last word may not come from state’s highest court.
A new federal case is emerging over governor Nathan Deal’s February decision to suspend and replace the board after the district was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting body.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires voting changes in certain states to be “pre-cleared” by the U.S. Department of Justice to establish that they don’t discriminate against minority groups.
While the Justice Department pre-cleared the law itself, each implementation of the law needs to be pre-cleared, as well, says Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“It’s clear from the pre-clearance letter that the Department of Justice sent that when the governor exercised his discretion [to remove board members], it would be a [voting-related] change that needed to be pre-cleared,” McDonald says. “We’re interested in seeing that Section 5 is complied with.”
Bob Wilson, the Decatur attorney who represented the school board before a state Board of Education hearing and in a federal lawsuit, says he passed on the voting rights issue only because he was working quickly to try to block the board’s removal. A voting rights action would have forced the case into the District of Columbia Circuit—and created a prolonged federal case.
“There are some legitimate issues regarding the Voting Rights Act,” he says.
The Georgia attorney general’s office declined to comment to Atlanta magazine. In a response to a letter from the ACLU and Decatur attorney Jerry Wilson, deputy attorney general Dennis Dunn cited the pre-clearance of the law itself.
That’s not enough, says Wilson, who is representing a group of DeKalb residents concerned about the voting rights implications. “All policy changes, practices and procedures related to voting have to be submitted for review,” he says. “Circumvention of that process is just not an option.”
Meanwhile, the suspended board members have one more chance to make their case to the governor. In mid-June, they will appear individually before an administrative law judge. The governor will consider the judge’s recommendations and decide whether to make their removal permanent. (Nancy Jester was the only one of the six suspended members who did not petition for reinstatement.)
There’s yet one more wrinkle: By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court is due to rule on a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. If it strikes down Section 5, then the board’s fate will hinge solely on decisions by the Georgia Supreme Court and the governor.
This has all been unsettling for parents, many of whom view the interim superintendent and new board as the district’s best chance for retaining its accreditation.
“This right here is scaring everybody to death,” said community activist Viola Davis, who attended the Georgia Supreme Court arguments.