The DeKalb County Board of Education could vote to reduce the number of members from nine to seven this month – an issue that intensified racial divisions among board members at a recent meeting.
The board voted unanimously March 8 to hold a meeting devoted to the issue before it votes on the measure soon, board members said. The measure is a resolution that would ask DeKalb County’s State House delegation to pass legislation that would shrink the board and redraw district boundaries.
H. Paul Womack placed the proposal on the agenda several days before the meeting, which several board members said was a last-minute change that caught them by surprise. The board has considered shrinking its size to be more efficient since December when the issue was tabled. The vast majority of school boards statewide consist of seven or fewer members, according to district data.
The district would save nearly $50,000 by cutting two board members, according to the proposal.
The issue quickly set off board members, including Vice Chair Zepora Roberts who said she was surprised when she saw the proposed resolution on the agenda before the meeting.
“We cannot conduct business like this,” she said. “We’re in the newspapers every day enough.”
The school board expanded from seven to nine members after the 2000 Census to ensure Black residents were given sufficient representation, board member Gene Walker said. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Civil Rights would need to approve any reduction in board members, and Walker said the board needed to consider the implications.
“What impact will it have when you change that?” he asked. “I’ll have people come say to me, ‘What, are you trying to turn the clock back?’”
Board member Jay Cunningham implied the resolution was a tool of Womack’s “personal vendetta” against Walker and was trying to remove him from the board. Walker has been a source of controversy since his dual role as a board member and a member of the DeKalb County Development Authority led to a clash over economic incentives for developers.
“The calls that I’m getting is that Paul Womack is trying to get Gene Walker off this board,” Cunningham said.
“I am flattered that you think I have the power—” Womack said.
“I didn’t say you had the power,” Cunningham said while board Chair Thomas Bowen banged his gavel as tensions rose. “I’m saying I got a phone call.”
Womack also implied the number of Black officials in local, state and national leadership positions made the proposed board change less controversial. He named DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis and President Barack Obama as examples.
“If (Womack) thinks racism has disappeared, then he’s sadly mistaken,” Walker replied.
A school system attorney reminded board members that if they passed the resolution, they would have no control over how the changes are made, including where the districts would be redrawn.
“They could do anything they want with it,” the attorney said of the General Assembly.
That, in particular, was a point of contention with Roberts who said she didn’t believe the board needed to pass the resolution. State education officials have been pursuing a measure that will limit school boards to between five and seven members, and Roberts said she believed it was possible to have larger school boards grandfathered in.
“I don’t trust the people that’s going to be drawing the school board members,” Roberts said. “If we approve this, we’re doomed.”
Board member Jim Redovian, who supported putting the item on the agenda, said Black board members were saying he was racist. He said the issue needed to be discussed.
Cunningham clarified his statements.
“I wasn’t calling you a racist, but it does divide us up when we don’t have a chance to talk,” he said.
Board members said they needed to schedule a meeting soon to get legislation into the General Assembly before crossover day – the 30th session day on which legislation must finally cross from one house to the next. But State House clerks said March 9 local bill submission isn’t restricted by crossover day.