DeKalb County schools chief Crawford Lewis temporarily stepped down from his job last month after local law enforcement officials raided his home and district offices – the most recent development in a months-long investigation into the district’s construction program.
The decision was announced following an emergency Feb. 25 school board meeting called after board members awoke to discover Lewis had been wrangled in an investigation of former district Chief Operating Office Pat Pope. District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming is trying to determine whether Pope illegally steered district construction contracts toward her husband, architect Tony Pope, or contractors he was working with.
It is unclear how long Lewis will be gone from the superintendency. School board Chair Thomas Bowen said he could return after the investigation is completed or when the board felt it is appropriate to invite him back. Regardless, the board’s tone was supportive of Lewis, and two board members said they disagreed with the change, abstaining from the board’s vote.
“(Lewis) fears that if he remains at the helm, the investigation and the press coverage it has incited will become a distraction,” Bowen told a small group of reporters shortly before 8 p.m.
Board Vice Chair Zepora Roberts was one of the abstainers. Rather than accept his temporary resignation, Roberts said the board should have stood up for him.
“Actions speak louder than words,” she said. “Our superintendent has not done anything wrong. I am in support of him.”
Board member Pam Speaks also abstained.
Ramona Tyson, the district’s deputy chief superintendent of business operations, will replace Lewis, who will retain his $255,000 salary while on leave.
A phone call to Tyson was not returned.
The board spent three hours behind closed doors to discuss the matter, and Lewis did not appear before reporters or the public when the board returned to open session to vote. Board members also declined to answer questions after the meeting, saying, “No comment,” as they shuffled behind closed doors again.
The district released copies of two search warrants for the district’s headquarters on North Decatur Road in Decatur and the Sam Moss Center in Tucker. Items law enforcement officials searched for included:
• All records pertaining to gifts received by Lewis, Pope and other district employees from vendors or contractors
• All records pertaining to the purchase of district vehicles for personal use by Pope and Lewis
• All records of communications between Lewis, Pope and school board members regarding construction projects under investigation and then larger criminal investigation into Pope
• All calendars and journals pertaining to Lewis
The search warrants listed a number of potential charges, including theft concerning programs receiving federal funds, theft by taking, false swearing, bid rigging and R.I.C.O.
Investigators spent hours in Lewis’ Stone Mountain home, collecting hard drives and other documents. They searched for documents related to seven school construction projects: Columbia High School, McNair Cluster Elementary School, Mountain Industrial Center, Arabia Mountain High School, Evans Mill Elementary School, Miller Grove High School and Tucker High School.
It was the second round of search warrants in the case. Investigators seized documents from a district building in Tucker where Pat Pope works on Oct. 13. The office of her husband, who has designed several county schools, was also searched.
The school board voted in November to give the majority of Pope’s responsibilities to two other construction management firms to protect its building programs from further controversy. Pope, however, did not lose her job, and her contract ends in June. District officials said she oversees other duties.
Lewis has been an educator for 33 years, Bowen said, and has been superintendent for several years.
“We just want the system to move forward,” said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators. “I think it was the right decision.”