Georgia PTA slams state over new wording for constitutional amendment

A group that represents a quarter million Georgia parents says Gov. Nathan Deal and state lawmakers are being “deceptive” and even “intentionally misleading” with wording they have chosen for November’s constitutional amendment affecting schools.

Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot would create a statewide school district with a superintendent answering only to the governor. That superintendent would have the power to requisition local tax dollars and to take control of schools that perform poorly on a state report card based on measures such as test results, attendance and graduation rates.

Critics slammed the ballot measure itself as misleading when lawmakers and the governor authorized its two dozen words last year. Now, opponents of the proposed “Opportunity School District,” or OSD, are critical of 14 new words published this week, and are demanding what they feel would be clearer language.

The state leaders responsible, however, appear unwilling to change their wording.

This week, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp publicized the “preamble” that will introduce voters to the ballot item. Since many will not have done their research, the language could be influential. It was written by Deal and the two leaders of the state House and Senate, who by law write ballot preambles. The words the three men approved at a meeting in Deal’s office on Aug. 2 introduce the measure this way: “Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.”

That, says the Georgia PTA, is simply untrue.

“This deceptive language must not be allowed on the November ballot. … The preamble, and indeed, the entire amendment question, is intentionally misleading and disguises the true intentions of the OSD legislation,” the group said in a statement Friday. “Parental and community involvement is not increased by or required by the OSD enabling legislation.”

PTA delegates voted 633-0 in June against the ballot item itself because, the organization says, the resulting constitutional amendment would take funding from local districts and place their schools in the hands of a political appointee.

Lisa-Marie Haygood, president of the Georgia PTA, said in an interview that both the preamble and the ballot question mislead with “flowery language” that does not reveal what the legislation would actually do. The ballot question asks if the state should be able to “intervene” to improve failing schools, when the state would actually take them over.

Haygood fears the OSD will become a “profit hub” for charter school corporations, since the OSD superintendent would be able to convert OSD schools into charter schools. “There’s nothing in that legislation that improves schools,” she said. “It’s just about the money.”

Senate Bill 133, the legislation that would take effect if voters approve the constitutional amendment, lets the state take a school building and responsibility for its students while forcing the local district to pay for certain facility costs. The local district would also have to turn over local and state tax proceeds for the school’s operation and for the OSD administration.

Jen Talaber Ryan, a Deal spokeswoman, said the ballot question is “fair and accurate” because the proposed state district “will allow the state to intervene and rescue students trapped in chronically failing schools.”

Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said it’s preferable for schools to improve and remain under local control. “However,” he said, “we must have the means to step in and protect students from being condemned to attending chronically failing schools.”

A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate leader and the third author of the preamble, declined to comment.

Michael O’Sullivan, director of StudentsFirst Georgia, which supports the amendment, said the preamble does reflect the intent behind the ballot initiative. “The way we, I, see the Opportunity School District succeeding is by working closely with the teachers, parents and community leaders at each school to identify what is needed and to work together to turn the school around,” he said.

The legislation mentions the word “community” five times without defining it, saying “community engagement and support” will be a criterion for school selection and that the community will have a voice in both the selection of OSD schools and the model of intervention used in each one. The OSD superintendent would also select members of the eventual OSD school governing boards from the community.

Teachers at any school taken over by the OSD could lose their jobs at the school. If they did, they’d remain employees of the local district, though the district could lay them off. Teachers groups oppose the proposal. They also reject the ballot language and the new preamble.

“What communities should understand is this amounts to a state takeover of their local public schools,” said Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. He added that a “takeover political appointee in Atlanta, who is literally miles away” from affected communities, cannot fix what ails many schools, mainly systemic poverty.

A handful of school boards have openly opposed the constitutional amendment, including the one in Henry County, which unanimously approved a symbolic resolution against it.

The district has no schools performing poorly enough to qualify for a takeover, said board chairwoman Pam Nutt. “Even if we did, I don’t want the state coming in to tell me how to run my schools,” said Nutt, who works as a school media specialist in a neighboring district. She said the preamble wording is misleading: “They ought to say what they mean, and what they mean is we’re going to come down and take over your schools.”

Cherokee County may become the next district to officially oppose the measure. The school board has scheduled a vote on an opposition resolution Thursday. Member Mike Chapman is already on record against it, having been quoted in a school district blog calling the ballot question “all motherhood and apple pie, unicorns and rainbows.”

On Friday, Mike Chapman said he opposed the OSD because it lacks the accountability of a local school board, which can be voted out of office. He also judged the new preamble to be deceptive. “If you read that statement to the average person on the street,” he said, “they’d say, well sure, I’m all for better schools.”

The AJC has created the The Ultimate Atlanta School Guide that lets you look at and compare critical data for every school in Georgia. You can find it at http://schools.myajc.com/#/schools.

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