Gwinnett at center of charter amendment fight

In the highly contested fight over the charter school amendment, Gwinnett County is ground zero.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal headlines the amendment’s backers, who are pushing to re-create a state commission with the authority to approve charter schools that have been previously denied by local boards of education.

Opponents, including GOP state School Superintendent John Barge, say that charter school applicants already have an avenue of appeal through the state Board of Education and that the amendment would create a new state bureaucracy that could siphon money away from traditional public schools.

The constitutional amendment, which was narrowly approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year, goes before voters Nov. 6 after intense campaigning on both sides.

But nowhere is the amendment debate being more closely watched than in Gwinnett, where one in 10 Georgia public school students are enrolled and where, arguably, the dispute began a few years ago.

Gwinnett school officials filed a lawsuit in 2010 challenging the constitutionality of the Georgia Charter School Commission, an independent body created by lawmakers in 2008 and given the power to approve charter school applications that local school boards had rejected.

The suit, which cost the district $300,000, followed the commission’s approval of an application from Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross that the Gwinnett school board had rejected in 2007. The commission also redirected about $1 million annually from the district to the school. The suit included six other school districts that had seen some of their funding redirected to charter schools they had not approved.

Gwinnett and the other districts won the suit in a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court in May 2011, only to see lawmakers come back this year and pass the constitutional amendment.

J. Alvin Wilbanks, the school district’s CEO and superintendent, said he wasn’t surprised by lawmakers’ actions.

“We felt the General Assembly would probably try to come back and do an end-round because they were pretty much bent on doing whatever they wanted to do in terms of allowing charter schools to be created without the approval and consent of the local [school] boards,” he said.

Gwinnett school employees, the school system’s vendors and attorneys were among early donors to Vote Smart Georgia, the major campaign committee working to defeat the amendment.

Wilbanks, who donated $5,000 to Vote Smart, says he has spent much of his “own time” campaigning against the amendment. At this point, the vote is believed to be too close to call.

Last week, Wilbanks debated the merits of the amendment before a small crowd in Henry County. On Sunday, he went toe to toe with House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones and other amendment supporters in a televised appearance before the Atlanta Press Club.

Meanwhile, two lawsuits are pending against the school district alleging that educators have crossed the line by campaigning on government time and money, a charge Wilbanks flatly denies.

Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the pro-amendment group Families for Better Public Schools, said Wilbanks, as a face of the opposition, is open to criticism. He collects a $400,000 salary and has a larger than average central office staff, even as teachers are being furloughed, Brantley said.

“And worst of all, his district consistently blocked a high-quality charter application, toyed with the school’s funding after they received state approval, and incorrectly bashes their academic performance publicly in a wrong-headed effort to discredit a successful school that wouldn’t be in existence if he had his way,” Brantley said.

Nina Gilbert, a former Gwinnett school administrator and co-founder of Ivy Prep, says Gwinnett officials denied her charter application without giving her an opportunity to address their concerns.

“The intention all along was not to accept the school as a Gwinnett County school,” Gilbert said.

The school system has approved other charter schools, including the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Lawrenceville, which had the state’s highest average SAT score for a public school in 2012 at 1941.

But Gwinnett school leaders say concerns about Ivy Prep’s financial viability largely led to their decision to deny its application.

Gilbert said the school board placed Ivy Prep’s financial health in jeopardy when, after the Supreme Court ruled, the school’s funding was set at $4,400 per student, from all funds, compared with $7,549 for other traditional schools.

She says her school, which has about 400 students, has been innovative, with expanded school days running from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and back-to-back math classes.

Wilbanks said he believes the constitutional amendment is the work of state lawmakers who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that’s gained national attention for authoring bills such as Arizona’s immigration measure and for promoting legislation similar to Florida’s stand-your-ground law in multiple states.

“It fits within their playbook to privatize, defund and dismantle public education,” Wilbanks said.

He said he believes the push for the amendment also is being directed by outside groups who want a share of the billions of dollars that could be made by creating charter schools and turning them over to private management companies.

Charter Schools USA of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a major charter school management company that pushed for a charter school in Cherokee County, gave $50,000 to the main group working to pass the amendment.

More than 100 local school boards across the state have passed resolutions opposing the amendment, which supporters expect will spark an increase in charter schools with a new commission appointed largely by pro-charter leaders in the Legislature.

Charter schools are a popular with lawmakers from Washington to Atlanta, despite reports indicating that, as a whole, most perform no better than traditional public schools. One reason for their popularity is that they stress, and in some cases mandate, more parental involvement.

But amendment supporters say leaders in traditional local public schools see them as competition and for that reason often reject charter applications.

Barge, the state school superintendent, has said that if more charters are approved, lawmakers will have to come up with more money. If the new commission approves only seven charters a year — the average approved under the now-defunct Georgia Charter Schools Commission — the extra costs for five years will be about $430 million, he said.

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