Valdosta Daily Times

State News

October 9, 2012

Lawsuit filed in charter fight

Local school districts accused of illegal use of taxpayer money

ATLANTA — A lawsuit filed Monday by five Georgia residents accuses the state’s 180 local school districts of illegally using taxpayer money to campaign against a proposed constitutional amendment that would put more control of charter schools in the state’s hands.

The amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot would allow the state to create a new board that could pick private entities to run the independent schools financed by taxpayers. Local boards currently control charters, though any applicant who is denied a charter may appeal to the state Board of Education.

The lawsuit argues that by using school board meetings or teacher staff meetings to organize opposition to the amendment, officials were improperly using a state resource — time out of their workdays — for political purposes. It asks a state judge to make them halt such activities.

Filed in Fulton County Superior Court, the suit names the Fulton County School System and the Gwinnett County School District as lead defendants. The systems, the suit alleges, are part of an “Education Empire” that is using public money to urge Georgians to vote against the amendment. Their aim, according to the plaintiffs, is “to retain their current monopoly power over public education in Georgia.”

Susan Hale, a spokesman for Fulton schools, said in an email, “Fulton County Schools hasn’t taken a side on the charter amendment issue. We have provided information on our website, through a Q&A, that addresses many of the questions received by our community.” She declined specific comment on the lawsuit “because it is now an ongoing legal process.”

Officials in Gwinnett did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did a spokeswoman for the Georgia School Boards Association.

The suit cites state officials giving public speeches opposing the amendment and several local school boards adopting resolutions against the measure. It also alleges that the opposition has organized at staff meetings of public school teachers. The complaint cites a 1981 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that stated: “The expenditure by a political subdivision of public money to influence the citizens and voters of the entity contains within it the possibility of the corrupt use of influence to perpetuate a local administration’s power.”

Neither Superintendent John Barge nor the state Board of Education is named among the defendants. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Glenn Delk, had previously threatened legal action against Barge for explaining his opposition using a state website. Barge removed the material.

Plaintiffs include Rich Thompson, the founder of 100Dads, an Atlanta-based civic group that backs expansion of charter schools; R. Allen Hughes, who separately has contributed to several libertarian and conservative politicians and causes; Kelley O’Bryan Gary, chairwoman of the Jackson County Republican Party; Rae Anne Harkness, a DeKalb County mother who pushed legislators earlier this year to approve the amendment for a statewide referendum; and Kara Martin.

The complaint asks the court to block the defendants from any further alleged violations and to reimburse the public treasury for any actual violations.

Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob has scheduled a hearing on whether to grant a preliminary injunction for Wednesday at 2 p.m. An injunction is granted in cases where a judge believes the party seeking the order has a reasonable chance to win the case.

Shoob has been involved in the charter school debate already. The state previously had a charter commission like the one contemplated under the November amendment. Opponents sued, arguing that the state constitution limits the state’s power to grant independent charters. Shoob sided with the state, ruling that the General Assembly was within its powers to create the body. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed Shoob in a 4-3 ruling.

That led Gov. Nathan Deal and others to push the amendment that voters will settle next month.

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