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DeKalb Board of Education hires new lawyers while broadcast glitch shows limits of virtual meetings

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DeKalb Board of Education hires new lawyers while broadcast glitch shows limits of virtual meetings

DeKalb County School Board member Dr. Joyce Morley virtually attends the boards regular meeting on May 9, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

By Sara Amis, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb County Board of Education voted to approve a contract with Hall Booth Smith, P.C. as general and SPLOST legal counsel for the school district at a special called meeting Dec. 23.

The board also terminated its agreement with Gregory, Doyle, Calhoun & Rogers, LLC as general counsel and SPLOST counsel. The DeKalb County School District will continue to pay both legal firms during the transition period.

The contract with Hall Booth Smith P.C. was the result of a request for qualifications that the board issued in October.

Director of Risk Management Glin Darien presented the recommendation. Darien, along with Dr. Tekshia Ward-Smith, board member Marshall Orson, and representatives from the department of Special Education Services participated in the process of choosing new legal representation.

Board Chair Vickie Turner said, “We had a very robust and a very professional process that took place, and we are happy that we came to this conclusion.”

The announcement for the meeting indicated that the meeting would be live-streamed on the district’s education access channel, as board meetings usually are. Video Production Coordinator John “Q” Kegler confirmed that he recorded and broadcast the meeting as usual. However, the meeting did not appear live on DSTV or the district’s YouTube channel. Since the meeting was virtual and a Zoom link was not provided, no other means of free public access to the meeting while it was happening was available.

The Georgia Open Meetings Act requires that all meetings of a public agency’s governing body, including school district boards, be open and accessible to the public, with some exceptions. The law allows public entities such as governments and boards to hold private executive sessions to discuss some matters such as personnel and real estate; however, all votes to decide such matters must be conducted in public.

Section 50-14-1(g) allows virtual meetings under “emergency conditions,” but requires that the public be allowed simultaneous access. Additionally, individual members may attend virtually, but may not do so more than twice in one calendar year without a written opinion from a medical professional that reasons of health prevent that member from attending.

The pandemic shutdown in 2020 forced all public meetings to be held virtually. As restrictions were lifted following the availability of vaccines for COVID-19, most local public agencies returned to in-person meetings. 

Since then, some local government entities have conducted some or all of their meetings virtually. Avondale Estates returned to virtual meetings temporarily at the end of 2021 due to the surge in Omicron variant cases, while Clarkston continues to hold all of its meetings virtually. A recent zoning rewrite presentation, attended by the mayor and several council members, was one of only a handful of in-person meetings by Clarkston city officials since 2020.

Most local public agencies have maintained “hybrid” meetings with an online aspect to their in-person proceedings, citing increased access for members of the public. DCSD has broadcast Board of Education meetings through its TV channel since well before the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, while the DeKalb Board of Education holds its regular business meetings in person, it has continued to conduct special called meetings solely virtually, with no alternate means of access for the public if DSTV fails to broadcast. Meanwhile, board member Dr. Joyce Morley has continued to attend all meetings virtually. 

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