What now for Fayette County Board of Education?

Election qualifying uncertainties multiply after judge vacates own ruling, orders new hearing May 3 in NAACP lawsuit

What now? That’s the question many are asking after a federal judge vacated his own order last week — an order that had upended the longstanding method of electing members to the Fayette County Board of Education.

What happened is that Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr. overlooked the legal fact that he had left out of a consent order one of the three parties involved in a voting rights lawsuit.

That third party — the Fayette County Commission — said in effect, “Wait a minute. What about us?”

Judge Batten agreed a second look was in order and rescinded his consent decree on April 18. He will re-hear the motions May 3 in Atlanta.

So what does the rescinded consent order mean for those wanting to qualify for the seats on the Fayette County Board of Education and the Fayette County Commission?

The easy answer is that it continues to extend the period of uncertainty over the local elections this summer. For example, which maps are being used? How are people to know which district they live in without an approved map? And what does Fayette County Elections Director Tom Sawyer tell them when they call to inquire?

“I don’t know what to tell them at this point. There are too many things up in the air. It depends on what the federal judge does and what the U.S. Department of Justice does,” Sawyer said Monday.

Sawyer said the area that, to date, still has some certainty pertains to the qualifying period. Sawyer said he was told by the Georgia Elections Division that, by law, May 23 through May 25 are established as the dates for qualifying for all Fayette County races.

“It is still May 23-25 as far as I know now because those qualifying dates are in the election code,” Sawyer said.

The circumstances pertaining to local school board and county commission races may be more clearly determined after the hearing in federal court on May 3, but the judge’s decision will be bumping up against the statutory qualifying deadline. Even so, any new consent decree will still require the approval of the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

That said, Sawyer did have a piece of advice for those considering a run for elected office on the school board or county commission.

“If you’re interested in running, be ready,” Sawyer said of the eventual approvals.

Qualifying is still May 23 through May 25 for the primary elections to be held July 31 for the school board and the county commission. The commission elections, at this point, look like they will still be decided by at-large voting.

At immediate issue are either three or four seats on the school board.

Batten’s now overturned order made voting by district the new way to select members of the board. Under his order, each candidate must live within one of five geographic districts and only those voters living within the geographic district may vote on the candidates from their district. Previously board candidates had to live in five separate districts, but all voters in the county were able to vote on all five posts.

Under normal circumstances, three of the five posts were due for election this year: Post 1, Janet Smola; Post 2, Terri Smith; and Post 3, Marion Key. Judge Batten added a fourth post to be decided in a special election in November: Post 5’s Leonard Presberg, who was appointed late last year to the unexpired term of the late Sam Tolbert.

Court documents on April 18 noting Batten’s order to rescind the consent decree state essentially that the county maintained that the consent order should be rescinded because no violation of the Voting Rights Act has been established, because the school board does not have the authority to make changes to the local constitutional amendment on its own motion and that the consent decree’s method of filling vacancies is contrary to state law.

The NAACP in response argued that the county lacks the standing to challenge the court-approved consent order or to interfere with the settlement with the NAACP and the school board because it imposes no legal duties or obligations on the county, according to court documents.

The county disagreed, saying that the consent decree imposes the expenditure of resources on the county pertaining to allocating voters to new districts then holding a special election in District 5 in north Fayette County, court records said.

Batten in the April 18 document said both parties to the suit are relying on a case decided in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The court finds that the county defendants have standing to challenge the court’s order approving the consent decree. Further, because the court entered its approval of the consent decree without first allowing the county defendants an opportunity to be heard regarding their objections to the consent decree, the court will vacate its Feb. 24 order approving the consent decree,” the April 18 document said.

An evidentiary hearing will be held on May 3 to hear arguments on four issues: whether the obligations incurred by the county are reasonable, whether the consent decree is constitutional, whether the school board defendants have the authority to enter into the settlement and whether the consent decree’s method of filing is contrary to state law.

The parties in the suit include the NAACP, the Fayette County Board of Education and the Fayette County Commission. Both county entities are being sued by the NAACP over district voting.

Judge Batten in the April 18 court document said, “In the consent decree the (NAACP) and the school board defendants devised a single-member district (voting) plan for the (board of education). The parties further represent in the consent decree that ‘the Board of Education defendants have the authority to settle lawsuits.’ Because the decree was styled a ‘consent decree’ the court was of the understanding that all parties consented to its entry. However, the county defendants did not consent to the decree. On Feb. 24 the court approved the proposed consent decree and entered final judgment. On March 5, the county defendants filed a motion to vacate the consent decree and final judgment, arguing that the remedy to which the (NAACP) and school board defendants agreed is not authorized by law. Accordingly, they argue, the court should vacate its entry on the consent order and final judgment.”

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