While the DeKalb County Board of Education wrestles with school closings and a billion-dollar budget, one board member has been having difficulty taking care of his own business.
According to court records, board member Jesse “Jay” Cunningham has at least 15 open court cases against him—most of which involve payroll garnishments to pay creditors. Of the cases, four were filed between 2002 and 2007, five in 2008, one in 2009 and five last year. In addition, there are seven cases involving Cunningham that are listed as “closed.”
The garnishments in the open cases exceed $173,000. Records show that his board member check has been garnished by Ford Motor Credit in seven of the open cases. As a board member, Cunningham is paid $23,400 annually.
Other organizations bringing garnishments against Cunningham last year include Delek US Holdings and Mapco Express. Delek is the parent company of Mapco Express, a convenience store. Money from these checks has gone to pay garnishments by Georgia Receivables, a collection agency attempting to settle a debt from Nice Cars Inc.
In March 2008, Stonecrest Promenade Shopping Center in Lithonia went to state court to ask Cunningham’s business at the time, Zo’s Pizza, to leave. Records show that Zo’s Pizza vacated the property in April 2008.
Zo’s Pizza operated at 3608 Panola Road in Lithonia but now is closed. The business license for Zo’s Pizza has been inactive since May 2010, according to county tax records.
In addition to the garnishment problems, county tax commissioner records from 2008-10 show that Cunningham owes approximately $3,400 in property taxes on his 2,900-square-foot home in Lithonia.
Cunningham would not comment on any of the cases saying that he would only discuss school business.
“I’m an elected official and I’m going to take care of the children,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham, 51, has been on the Board of Education representing District 5 since Jan. 2007. Last year, he won a re-election bid after garnering 64 percent of the vote.
Cunningham’s attorney, Dwight Lowell Thomas, said he was not aware of any garnishments against his client or any financial problems. Thomas added that he would not be surprised if there are lawsuits against Cunningham because of the litigious nature of the business world.
Assuming he has had financial problems in the past, there is no difference between Cunningham and Gov. Nathan Deal, who has had his own fiscal challenges, Thomas said.
“Jay Cunningham has grown from all the adversity of his life,” Thomas said.
“Maybe it ends up being a blessing to help others,” Thomas said of Cunningham’s possible financial problems. “Whatever happened, happened. We are looking forward.”
About a week before the election, it was reported that Cunningham was convicted in 1982 of stealing $12,500 in bank deposits from a Decatur McDonald’s restaurant where he was a store manager. Under Georgia’s First Offender Act, Cunningham was not legally required to divulge his criminal history because he had successfully completed the terms of the sentence for the felony.
Dan Magee, president of the Laurel Ridge Civic Association, said most adults have financial problems at some point in their lives, but school board members must be held to a higher standard.
“We ought to ask whether this board member is capable of operating such a large budget,” Magee said. “Board members have to be financially savvy.”