Valdosta Daily Times

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October 3, 2012

State education agency neutral on charter vote

ATLANTA — With the state education chief under pressure for opposing an amendment on charter schools, the Georgia Department of Education has declared its neutrality on the Nov. 6 vote.

The amendment would allow a new state board to select private organizations to run taxpayer-financed charter schools. The power now rests with local school boards.

All day Tuesday, the department of education scrolled an alert across its webpage stating that it “takes no position” on the vote. The message doesn’t mention Superintendent John Barge. But it is meant to mollify complaints that the Republican schools chief abused his authority and violated state laws governing electioneering by public agencies and elected officials.

The online alert is the second retreat in as many weeks following a complaint lodged by an Atlanta attorney on behalf of unidentified clients. Earlier, Barge retracted online documents explaining his opposition to the amendment.

Barge aides said both actions followed the advice of state Attorney General Sam Olens.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office, meanwhile, quietly edited a March 19 statement on the governor’s official website, removing a statement in which he urged Georgians to approve the change. Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the action was voluntary.

The statement, issued when the General Assembly approved the amendment, previously concluded with this line: “I hope Georgians will cast their vote for protecting and promoting schools that have a strong record of student achievement.” It now concludes with a new sentence: “There’s a great need in our state for protecting and promoting schools that have a strong record of student achievement.”

As of Tuesday evening, the statement was still dated March 19, with no reference to the editing more than six months after its initial release.

Deal headlines the supporters for the amendment, arguing that Georgians need as many public education options as possible.

Barge is the highest profile opponent, saying the new board would constitute a state power grab. Local school boards already may grant charter applications.

Robinson said he knows of no complaints filed against the governor. “It’s just not worth going to the mat over,” he told AP in an email. “We think it’s fine but why hassle.”

The retooling of official websites aside, Robinson and Barge aide Matt Cardoza said their bosses intend to continue publicly stating their positions.

It is not clear whether that will generate legal repercussions. Glenn Delk, the attorney who initially complained about Barge’s activities, said his clients believe relevant laws and Georgia Supreme Court decisions bar the superintendent from speaking about his opposition in his official capacity. Asked whether the same standard applies to the governor, Delk said, “My clients are concerned with Superintendent Barge.”

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