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Chattooga County Board of Education Chair John Agnew testifies during a hearing in Senior Judge Adele Grubbs's courtroom in Chattooga County Superior Court on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Summerville, Tenn. The hearing was held regarding Allan Baggett's petition to recall Agnew.

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Chattooga County school board

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — Though she did not rule whether residents can try to kick out the school board chair, Senior Judge Adele Grubbs said she had "issues" with a recall petition.

"My concern is the language in the petition," Grubbs said Tuesday morning, during a hearing on whether to dismiss the petition. "I'm bound by it."

Allan Baggett, a Chattooga County resident, collected more than 100 signatures in March from voters who said they wanted to oust Board of Education Chair John Agnew over his decision to return the district to a five-day school schedule. Baggett's accomplishment was a preliminary step, allowing him to move forward with a more formal recall petition.

Baggett and other supporters of the effort say Agnew violated the board's code of ethics by failing to let members of the public voice their opinions at the Jan. 17 meeting, when the board voted to return to a five-day week. In his recall application, filed March 19, Baggett wrote that Agnew violated Georgia law and the code of ethics because he allowed "NO discussion," which "constitutes a breach of trust." Though she did not discuss specific problems with the paperwork, Grubbs said she might have to toss the petition on technical grounds.

Georgia code leaves a narrow path for voters to recall an elected official. This would include malfeasance of office, failing to perform the specific duties outlined for their position and misappropriating public money, for example.

Agnew's attorney, King Askew, argued Tuesday that there was discussion before the vote — just not from members of the public. The board members stated their positions and voted, 4-1, to re-open schools on Mondays, beginning this fall. (Board member John Turner was the lone dissenter.)

Askew said the board's vote — and the lack of discussion from the public — did not meet the legal requirements to recall an elected official. He said the action did not amount to a breach of public trust.

"They don't want to go to a five-day school system, and they want to recall anybody who does," Askew said.

Baggett's attorney, Justin O'Dell, said the issue is more complicated. Nobody can speak at a school board meeting unless they fill out a formal request at central office at least five days before a meeting. Meanwhile, the board did not publish an agenda for the Jan. 17 meeting until the day before. (Board member Julia Houston testified that the online website All On Georgia - Chattooga actually published the agenda a week in advance. A writer for the site, Casie Bryant, pushed back, testifying that she published the agenda on Jan. 16.)

"There was no opportunity for public discussion at that meeting on that decision," O'Dell said.

Askew argued that there was plenty of debate before the Jan. 17 meeting. Agnew testified that members of the board had discussed the school schedule issue in prior years. He said it was a key part of his campaign in 2016, as well as a key issue on the campaign trail in three school board races last year.

Republicans Sammy Ballard, Brad Hayes and Julia Houston all defeated incumbents in November. They supported a five-day week. They were sworn in minutes before they decided to eliminate the four-day week.

But O'Dell argued that this prior discussion did not matter. Discussions on the campaign trail are not the same as discussions as an official member of the school board.

"In our mind," he said, "full discussion includes public input."

Since the Jan. 17 vote, critics have spoken out at board meetings every month. Meanwhile, Turner resigned in April in protest over the board's decision, and Superintendent Jimmy Lenderman retired April 30. He was an outspoken advocate for the four-day week, which began in the fall of 2010, and said friends of his told him they believed the new board subjected him to a hostile work environment.

If Grubbs sides with Baggett, he will next need to obtain signatures of 30 percent of registered voters from 2016 — about 4,000 people — to trigger a recall vote. If a majority of voters approved of the recall, Agnew would then be ousted from the board.

Baggett has not pursued a similar action against other members of the board because they have not served as elected officials long enough to legally get recalled.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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