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UPDATE: Notice for DeKalb School Board sent to newspaper, but was ‘not requested to be published’

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UPDATE: Notice for DeKalb School Board sent to newspaper, but was ‘not requested to be published’

Board Chair Vickie B. Turner, on left, and Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris during the DeKalb County Board of Education regular meeting on Monday, April 18, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated. 

By Sara Amis, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb County Board of Education at its April 26 special called meeting fired Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris.

However, notice of that meeting did not run in the district’s legal organ, The Champion newspaper. The district says it was only required to provide the notice to The Champion, but the Champion did not have to run the notice in order for the school board to meet the legal notice requirements for public meetings. Decaturish has asked the district to provide a copy of the legal notice sent to The Champion newspaper.

There was also confusion about the time of the April 26 meeting. Some board members believed the meeting, which had been discussed since April 14 according to one board member, was to occur at 3 p.m. But later the meeting time was changed to 4:45 p.m., creating a conflict which resulted in two board members not being present when the school board voted to fire the superintendent.

If the meeting was not properly noticed as required by state law, the school board’s action would be invalid and the board would have to vote again to fire Watson-Harris if the firing were challenged in court.

The Georgia Open Meetings Act states that any public agency, including school boards, must notify the public of any called meeting at least 24 hours in advance. Notice must specifically include the publication which functions as the county’s official legal organ. After this article was published, a district spokesperson confirmed The Champion is the county’s legal organ.
John Hewitt, Chief Operating Office at the Champion, initially told Decaturish, “Based on searches we’ve done, we do not see a notice submitted for this meeting.”

Georgia Code 50-14-1, section (d)2 says, “For any meeting, other than a regularly scheduled meeting of the agency for which notice has already been provided pursuant to this chapter, written or oral notice shall be given at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting to the legal organ in which notices of sheriffs sales are published in the county where regular meetings are held.”

After this article was published, Hewitt contacted Decaturish and said, “After delving further into this, I’ve found out that we did indeed receive notification of the meeting and it was 24 hours prior.”

But it didn’t run in the paper, Hewitt said. When asked why, Hewitt said, “It was not requested to be published.”

“We don’t publish a notice and charge for it without it being requested,” he said. “Also, there’s the fact that we are weekly newspaper published each Thursday. The notice was sent on a Monday for a Tuesday meeting.”

The meeting has been in the works since at least April 14, according to DeKalb County School Board member Gevertz.

In a Facebook post she worte, “On April 14th, we were notified of a called meeting to be held on April 26th.”

“On April 22 we received the agenda, confirming the 3 p.m. start time, and the supporting documents,” Gevertz wrote. “[The] called meeting was switched from 3:00 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. when the board was very aware of a 5:30 p.m. District-wide event.”

Gevertz contacted board Chair Vickie Turner via text message at 2:46 p.m. on April 26 asking that the event be postponed due to the conflict.

“Is there a chance we can postpone this meeting? Community is confused,” Gevertz’s text says. “Media is confused. I’m confused. Can we do it later in the week?”

Gevertz said at 4:34 p.m., Turner told her that she would be adding something to the executive session agenda and “alluded to what it would cover,” meaning the superintendent’s contract with the district.

“I told her I felt the topic warranted full Board participation and she was aware of at least two members who had conflicts,” Gevertz said. “I asked if that discussion could be postponed and she said she would leave it to the people who would be attending the meeting. I made the same plea when the Board meeting began and only Mr. [Marshall] Orson supported my motion to postpone the critical conversation.”

DeKalb School Board policy states that their meetings are subject to the open meetings laws of the State of Georgia.

Donald Porter, a spokesperson for the district, said, “Our legal counsel has advised that there is no requirement that our Called Board meeting notifications be ‘published’ in the Champion newspaper.”

Porter says the district issued proper notification as required by Georgia law.

State Senator Elena Parent earlier this week sent a letter to State Superintendent Richard Woods stating her concerns about the district.  Woods forwarded that letter to the Attorney General, saying her letter suggested possible violations of the state Open Meetings Act.

Meghan Frick, Communications Director at the Georgia Department of Education, said “based on a review of Senator Parent’s letter, [the Attorney General’s office] did not identify any violations of the Open Meetings Act. However, we feel there is other publicly available information about the DeKalb Board of Education’s April 26 called meeting that should also be reviewed in order to make that determination. We have provided that information to the AG’s office and requested their review.”

Melissa Manrow, President of the League of Women Voters of DeKalb County, was also critical of the circumstances leading up to the April 26 meeting. She said that there was no “act of God or extreme event” requiring rapid action by the DeKalb County School Board.

“The employment or firing of the school superintendent are matters of great public interest,” Manrow said. “The short-notice change of the meeting time, which prevented two board members from attending, along with the agenda change, do not signal good intentions or reasonable actions on the part of the board members voting to remove the superintendent. The ultimate cost of this activity is paid by the children who attend DeKalb County Schools, along with the taxpayers of DeKalb County, and neither group deserves it.”

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