A grand jury, in a recent presentment, urged DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James to convene a special grand jury to investigate the actions of the DeKalb County Board of Education.
This is the second time in the past six months that grand jurors have called for a special investigation into the actions of the school board.
“He has already said publicly he is going to ask the [state] Supreme Court for a special grand jury to investigate the school board,” said Erik Burton, a spokesman for the DeKalb District Attorney’s Office.
In the presentment, jurors listed several areas of concern regarding the school board including fiscal responsibility, legal representation, and policies and procedures. Additionally, the presentment lists concerns regarding litigation the district is currently in with construction firm Heery/Mitchell.
“The grand jury asked each member if they would agree to a forensic audit of the entire school system, with the goal being to uncover any potential financial land mines, and to ensure that the proper checks and balances were in place,” the presentment states. All school board members questioned by the grand jury were in favor of an outside audit, except DeKalb School Board Chairman Eugene Walker, according to the presentment.
“The audits completed by the state of Georgia did not uncover anything of concern,” Walker told jurors as the reason he voted against a forensic audit. According to the presentment, Walker told jurors the board had inherited a list of problems.
Another issue jurors raised was why the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) retains two law firms as legal counsel, one of which was reportedly $400,000 more expensive than a competing law firm that represents districts such as Fulton, Cobb and Clayton.
Currently, the DCSD retains law firms Alexander and Associates as well as Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan. The presentment alleged that Budget, Finance and Facilities Chairman Paul Womack couldn’t recall the differences between the two firms.
“The third firm, Brock Clay, was not selected even though…they submitted a bid which was more than $400,000 lower than the bid submitted by Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan. Brock Clay specializes in education law,” the presentment states. “The decisions made to retain two firms while not selecting a highly qualified and significantly less expensive firm when the school system is in financial distress are highly questionable.”
Board members were also asked about whether providing funds for former Superintendent Crawford Lewis’ legal defense in a criminal case was against board policy.
Grand jurors also questioned the agreement with legal firm King and Spalding, which is representing the board of education in its suit against construction firm Heery/Mitchell. The construction firm managed the school system’s Special Option Local Sales Tax (SPLOST) account from 2002-06. In 2006 the school district terminated the company, citing overbilling and questionable work. Heery then sued the DCSD for $400,000 it said the district still owes them. The school district then countersued for $100 million, alleging fraud and claiming that the company mismanaged projects.
“According to the board, the suit does not request Heery/Mitchell to pay the board’s attorney’s fees as part of the settlement, and at last count approximately $18 million had been paid to King and Spalding and an additional $19 million of fees was currently accrued,” the presentment states. “Even a successful judgment in this case would appear to create a deficit of approximately $107 million ($70 million in repair and building projects [plus] $37 million in paid or accrued legal expenses).”
Late last year a grand jury cited similar concerns with the school board’s actions and stated it was in “turmoil.” It cited board interference and leaks to the media during the process to hire a new superintendent, and whether school funds were used to promote the recent SPLOST.
James decided not to call for a special grand jury investigation then, agreeing with Walker that many issues had been “inherited” by the school board. However, James did express concerns regarding several items mentioned by the grand jury, including the “alleged” leaks during the superintendent hiring process.
School officials were contacted for comment on this story but did not return repeated calls or e-mails.