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Former Georgia schools turnaround chief sues to block public release of damaging report

After resigning last month, the head of efforts to turnaround struggling schools in Georgia has filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Education to block public release of a damaging audit the agency completed that led to his resignation.

The lawsuit was filed two days after the education agency notified Chief Turnaround Office Eric Thomas last Friday that the 64-page audit of his office might soon be released publicly, though that has not happened yet.

The agency refused to provide Capitol Beat News Service with a copy of the audit following an open-records request last week.

The audit probed allegations of bid-rigging in Thomas’ office, issues with travel expenses and workplace harassment, according to a letter last month from Georgia Inspector General Deborah Wallace.

“Overall, it appears that the chief turnaround office was mismanaged and that policies and procedures in place were routinely ignored by Dr. Thomas,” the letter says.

But Thomas claims the audit’s findings were flawed from the start since he was never interviewed as part of an internal investigation by the agency. The lawsuit calls the audit “a retaliatory sham,” disclosure of which would violate Georgia’s Whistleblower Protection Act.

Thomas also claims the audit’s release would damage his reputation and chances for future employment. The lawsuit describes his experience as “extremely marketable” after years of work in public school systems including a stint as the turnaround chief for the University of Virginia.

“As a result, publication of the investigative report would result in publication of irreparably damaging information about Dr. Thomas based on an investigation that was not undertaken in good faith, and which would invade his privacy by defaming him,” the lawsuit says.

Thomas gave the agency a 35-page response to the audit last week, according to the lawsuit. He may address the Board of Education at a meeting Wednesday.

The dispute centers on control over a branch of the state education agency tasked with improving the worst-performing schools in Georgia. Thomas alleges in the lawsuit that state School Superintendent Richard Woods sabotaged the turnaround office in order to bring its functions under his administrative control.

A Savannah native, Thomas has headed up the turnaround office since state lawmakers passed legislation creating it in 2017. He tendered his resigned last month amid the audit’s completion and is poised to step down May 30.

Now, the chief turnaround office will be folded into a different arm of the education department run by Stephanie Johnson, the deputy superintendent for school improvement. Woods told lawmakers last month the change should not cause any hiccups for 13 low-performing schools the office was supporting.

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