Lawyer: Superintendents’ ‘campaigning’ illegally against charter amendment

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Lawyer: Superintendents’ ‘campaigning’ illegally against charter amendment

From the time the amendment on charter schools was put on the ballot, and even before, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has explained the issue, its background, the arguments, and the financial backers on each side. We continue that in-depth coverage with today’s report on the latest developments.

An Atlanta attorney contends Georgia Superintendent John Barge and school superintendents in Fulton County and Atlanta are illegally using taxpayer money and time to lobby against a proposed constitutional amendment on charter schools.

His letter to the state Board of Education is the latest sign of the deep contention over the proposed amendment. The battle has been fierce, drawing interest – and hundreds of thousands in campaign donations – from across the country. Barge angered amendment backers in August when he announced his opposition. Gov. Nathan Deal has spoken in favor of it.

The attorney, Glenn Delk, asked the state board to hold an emergency meeting on his allegations and determine if state funds should be withheld from local school boards if they have violated state law.

The board held a previously scheduled budget meeting Friday and did not publicly address Delk’s allegations. It said it would forward the letter to the state attorney general for guidance.

Barge declined, through a spokesman, to comment on the letter. “Because this is a potential litigation issue, it would be unwise for us to comment on it at the moment,” said Matt Cardoza of the Georgia Department of Education.

Fulton County Superintendent Robert Avossa and Atlanta Superintendent Erroll Davis denied breaking state law.

“I view this as a sophomoric attempt at intimidation,” Davis said, adding that officials in his district “are neither intimidated nor concerned about these baseless allegations.”

Voters will decide in November if they want to amend the state constitution to create a commission that could approve charter school applications, which are now considered by local school boards and the state Board of Education.

A ‘yes’ vote would also underscore the state’s power to create and fund charter schools. Some charter school advocates believe that power is vulnerable to legal threat because the state Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the Georgia Charter Schools Commission did not have the constitutional authority to create charter schools.

Amendment opponents say a new path for charter approval, the commission, is not needed, and that creating and funding more charters would cut into scarce funding for traditional public schools.

School districts are pointing to a 29-point position paper Barge wrote. A link to that paper is on the state Department of Education’s Web site.

Parts of Barge’s paper were in a question-and-answer sheet the Fulton County School District provided to voters.

Part of the Q&A attempts to describe “in layman’s terms,” what the amendment is asking. It says, “The amendment is asking voters to decide whether a state government-run commission of unelected appointees should be allowed to authorize and fund charter schools.”

Delk described the Q&A as a “thinly disguised propaganda piece against the amendment.”

Avossa, who has not taken a public position on the proposed amendment, said the Q&A was an attempt to “clarify confusion.”

Amendment opponents said Delk’s letter is simply the most recent attempt to silence them.

“We’ve heard about dozens and dozens of instances of threatening phone calls being made to those who oppose the amendment” said Jane Langley, manager of Vote Smart, a campaign group that opposes the proposed amendment. “There are serious freedom of speech issues here.”

Delk, who described his clients as “individual taxpayers” he would not identify, said public officials are not allowed to direct taxpayer-paid staff to engage in political activity. Elected officials also must refrain from engaging in political activity using taxpayer resources, he said.

Barge, elected to statewide office in 2010, is not the only public office-holder to argue for or against the proposed amendment.

Deal’s staff has made pitches for the amendment and pointed out what the administration sees as flaws in the arguments of those who oppose it.

Days after Deal touted the proposed amendment during a speech to the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce, the chamber dropped its opposition.

Other elected amendment supporters have been active in the charter fight, too.

State Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, serves as chairman of Families for Better Public Schools, a group that supports the proposed amendment. Lindsey also wrote a letter ripping Barge for his opposition.

Asked if Deal, Lindsey and other pro-amendment elected officials have violated the law, Delk said: “To be honest, since I am not really aware of what they are doing, I don’t have a comment on that.”

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