Olens to offer more legal guidance on charter advocacy do’s and don’t’s

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said Thursday that he will have more to say, in the next couple of weeks, about whether local school boards violated state law when they approved resolutions opposing the charter schools amendment.

“We’re currently working on advice to the state school superintendent on what enforcement mechanisms may be appropriate or necessary,” Olens told journalists in a conference call Thursday afternoon. “Because that’s active, I’m not going to get into those details right now.”

Some supporters of the charter schools amendment have complained that Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge and several school boards violated state law by using taxpayer resources to oppose the amendment. Barge wrote Olens seeking guidance, and on Wednesday the attorney general responded with a three-page letter citing the law against using taxpayer resources to participate in a political campaign.

Olens’ letter only addressed only school boards, not the actions by supporters of the amendment, which he said he was not asked to address. Some legislators have been active in supporting the amendment, and Gov. Nathan Deal has endorsed it in public speeches.

Olens’ letter left several questions unanswered: Did local school boards violate the law when they passed resolutions in opposition to the charter schools amendment? If they did, what can or should be done about it? And what about trade groups like the Georgia School Boards Association, which receives some public money and has vigorously opposed the amendment?

Olens was pressed on those questions Thursday.

“Some questions, like whether certain groups have broken the law, I can’t answer because they are fact-intensive questions, and I don’t have the facts,” Olens said. “I’m not going to get into answering hypothetical questions about what does and doesn’t violate the law when I have an active matter on the issue.”

Olens said he will send another letter to Barge in the next week or two that should offer some clarity about the actions of the school boards.

School board members say they were elected to express their views on matters of public importance. Phil Hartley, an attorney whose firm represents many school boards, said several of their anti-amendment resolutions stop short of urging voters to take a position.

Indeed, the chairwoman of one of Hartley’s clients, the Douglas County School Board, recently reminded a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that her board’s resolution, passed by a 4-1 vote Monday night, did not ask voters to take a position.

The charter schools amendment, if ratified by voters in November, would clarify the state’s power to authorize charter schools and would create a state commission to consider applications for them.

Many traditional public school officials vehemently oppose it, arguing that more charter schools would mean less funding for traditional public schools. Supporters counter that the state needs more charter schools to provide choices to parents whose children attend failing traditional public schools.

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