ATLANTA — Georgia's Supreme Court has ruled that a law the governor used earlier this year to remove six members of the DeKalb County school board is constitutional.
"First, it is a fundamental principle of our constitutional tradition that no public officer - whether constitutional or only statutory - is above the law," the opinion released Monday states.
Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year used a 2010 provision to remove six of the nine members of the DeKalb County school board. Former board chairman Eugene Walker filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block his suspension from office. The federal judge hearing the case declined to stop the governor from appointing new school board members but also asked the Georgia Supreme Court to clarify several key questions.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story asked the high court to determine whether the law Deal used to remove the school board members undercuts requirements in the state constitution that local education boards control districts. He also asked the high court to rule on whether the General Assembly went beyond its powers to generally regulate school boards when it created the removal process.
"Throughout our history, the General Assembly has understood its legislative power to include the power to provide by general law for the removal of local constitutional officers for cause, notwithstanding that the Constitution did not explicitly and specifically confer such a power, and in some cases, even with respect to officers for whom the Constitution made other provision for their removal," according to the opinion published Monday.
The governor's action "is not an unconstitutional infringement upon the governing authority of local school boards, nor is it a violation of any other constitutional provision or right," the court concluded.
DeKalb County is the state's third-largest school district, serving about 99,000 students. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools had 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 the board members. It took no action against board members who were elected after the conduct cited in the report. Deal, a Republican, replaced the six board members with his appointees.
In a statement, Deal said Monday's ruling provides an "added layer of security" for students, parents and other stakeholders in Georgia's education system.
"I believe a governor should exercise this power rarely and only in worst case scenarios," he said. "In cases where school systems risk loss of accreditation, the results can be catastrophic for the community, particularly for the innocent students who have a red flag on their academic record because of the actions of adults."