ATLANTA — A law allowing the governor to remove local school board members violates the state constitution because it undermines local control of schools, a lawyer told Georgia's top court Monday, while state officials said the legislature was within its right to pass the law.
Georgia's Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether a 2010 provision that Gov. Nathan Deal used earlier this year to remove six members of the DeKalb County school board undercuts requirements in the state constitution that local education boards control school districts. The state judges must also rule on whether the General Assembly went beyond its powers to generally regulate school boards when it created the removal process.
Former board chairman Eugene Walker filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block his suspension from office. He has separately petitioned for reinstatement. The federal judge hearing the lawsuit asked Georgia's Supreme Court to rule on the state constitutional questions before deciding the federal case.
Walker's attorney, Thomas Cox, said during arguments Monday that the law should be struck down because it allows for the removal of elected officials "without even having ever been charged with wrongdoing, or much less been proven of committing any legal wrongdoing."
The state constitution provides that elected officials can be removed from office only through a recall by the voters, not at the discretion of the governor, he said. Cox said that while the state constitution gives lawmakers room to set qualifications for those serving on school boards, lawmakers do not have the power to create a removal process, much less delegate it to other agencies.
Cox also said the current law places too much power in the hands of a private accreditation agency and sets arbitrary standards for removed school board members seeking reinstatement.
Stefan Ritter, who argued for the state, told the judges that the law passes muster because the state constitution permits lawmakers to set the qualifications for holding office on a school board.
"The General Assembly by having the power to determine who's qualified, has the power to decide who can be removed from office," said Ritter, a senior assistant attorney general.
He said school board members do not need to have committed any individual wrongdoing to face removal. Simply sitting on a school board that is negligent in performing its duties is enough.
"This statute is about protecting schools and the children in those schools," he said.
DeKalb County is the state's third-largest school district, serving about 99,000 students. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the district on probation in December after a six-month investigation. The accreditation agency cited in a report long-term leadership issues including nepotism, fiscal mismanagement, inappropriate micromanagement and intimidation within the district.
Following the 2010 law, the state Board of Education recommended the removal of six of the nine members of the county school board. It took no action against board members who were elected after the conduct cited in the report. Deal, a Republican, subsequently removed the six board members from office and replaced them with appointees.
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