A federal judge has lifted a temporary restraining order that barred Governor Nathan Deal from suspending six members of the DeKalb County Board of Education, removing a legal barrier that last week had also blocked the governor from immediately replacing them.
The school system was placed on probation last December by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement. The removal is seen by Deal as part of an effort to salvage the district’s accreditation.
In an order filed late Monday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Richard Story turned down a request for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed the six school board members to remain in office while they continue to challenge the constitutionality of their removal.
In a written statement, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens applauded Story’s ruling as a “well-reasoned order affirming our position that the Governor was on solid legal ground in removing six DeKalb school board members. Judge Story correctly recognized that the students in the DeKalb school system must come first. I appreciate Judge Story’s careful thought, hard work, and swift decision in this time-sensitive matter.”
Robert Wilson, attorney for DeKalb schools, couldn’t be reached.
Story held that state law issues raised in the complaint – which was filed two weeks ago by the DeKalb County School District and board member Eugene Walker — should be decided by Georgia courts, not the federal courts. To that end, Story said that he would certify the questions of state law to the Georgia Supreme Court “rather than having to wait on a newly-filed state action to work its way through to appeal.”
The public has a “significant competing interest” to those of the school district and the school board, Story said in his ruling. “Though the public has an interest in its elected officials being allowed to serve in the offices to which they were elected, there is an even greater public interest at stake here,” he said. “The interest of the public in a healthy public school system outweighs the interests of board members in serving in their positions. … The harm from the loss of accreditation to the school district and the resulting harm to the students in the district are profound. To permit the board members to continue to serve while their individual claims are resolved risks substantial consequences for the school district and its students. The Court finds that this risk of harm far outweighs the risks to the board members.”
Walker and the school district had claimed that removal of six members of the nine-member board by Deal was unconstitutional. Attorneys for the school district and Walker said the board members’ posts were a property right under the Fourteenth Amendment that could not be stripped from them without due process. A 14-hour state school board hearing on the matter, the judge said, “met the basic requirements of pre-termination due process.” The judge added that state law permits a suspended school board member to petition for reinstatement and provides for another hearing and judicial review. “Thus, there is considerable evidence that due process as required by the Fourteenth Amendment has been satisfied,” Story said in his ruling.
Story, citing Georgia and federal case law that bars political subdivisions of a state from challenging state statutes under the aegis of the Fourteenth Amendment, suggested that the school district might lack standing to sue in federal court. While he declined to decide the issue of standing, the judge concluded that the question “nonetheless creates a substantial question about whether the School district will ultimately succeed on its Fourteenth Amendment claim.”
While the school district’s attorneys identified the property right of the board members “as an interest that cannot be denied without due process of law,” Story held that they “fail to identify any property interest of the school district that is threatened by the state’s action.”
“The school district has no interest in any particular person serving on the school board,” he wrote. “Rather, the interest of the school district is that a duly constituted board be in place so that it can conduct business. The school board suspension statute assures continuity of operations through appointments by the governor to fill vacancies created by the suspensions. Thus, the loss of any property interest by the school district is not apparent to the Court.”
Story said that the only harm to the plaintiffs “is their temporary inability to perform the duties of the office to which they were elected. Because they are presently suspended with pay, they are suffering no monetary loss,” and any permanent removal of board members “can only occur after they have been afforded the process provided” established by state law.
“In the event plaintiffs ultimately prevail in the case, they will be reinstated to their positions and will receive compensation to which they are entitled,” Story said. “Thus, if they ultimately prevail, they will have only suffered the loss of the opportunity to serve in their elected office for a limited period of time.”