State superintendent removes anti-charter letter from agency’s website

On the advice of the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, state Schools Superintendent John Barge removed his letter opposing a proposed constitutional amendment on charter schools from his agency’s website.

The decision to remove the letter Thursday came a week after an Atlanta attorney filed a complaint with the Department of Education alleging that it violated state law by using taxpayer money and time to lobby against the amendment on the November ballot.

DOE spokesman Matt Cardoza said the attorney general’s office did not “order” Barge to remove the letter but advised him to remove it “to avoid potential litigation.” Attorney Glenn Delk said he planned to file suit in Fulton Superior Court on Friday if the letter was not removed.

Barge could not be reached for comment Friday. The Attorney General’s Office issued a statement Friday after word began to circulate that it had ordered Barge to remove the letter he posted on the state site in August.

“The Attorney General has not ordered or directed Superintendent Barge to do anything.” the statement said. “At the Superintendent’s request, we have offered verbal legal advice regarding potential litigation, and we continue to advise them on that matter. Because the matter is active and litigation is possible, we will have no further comment at this time.”

Spokeswoman Lauren Kane declined to comment on whether Attorney General Sam Olens will go a step further and advise school boards across the state to take the letter off their websites. In the complaint he filed last week, Delk also accused Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis and Fulton County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa of breaking state law and using taxpayer money and time to oppose the amendment.

“I view this as a sophomoric attempt at intimidation,” Davis said last week, adding that officials in his district “are neither intimidated nor concerned about these baseless allegations.” Avossa said he has gone out of his way not to advocate for or against the amendment. Delk called a Q&A about the amendment posted on the Fulton website “a thinly disguised propaganda piece against the amendment.”

Delk said Friday that he would withhold filing suit against Barge and the superintendents pending what he said was an “investigation” by the attorney general into his complaint, which he expects to be concluded next week. The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment or confirm whether it is investigating the allegation.

Cardoza, the DOE spokesman, said Friday that it’ s not clear whether Barge and the department will issue a new statement saying they neither support nor oppose the amendment, or whether the DOE will request that schools boards that have posted the Barge letter opposing the amendment take it off their websites.

The battle over the amendment has grown fierce, drawing interest — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations — from across the country. Barge’s letter angered amendment backers.

Voters will decide in November whether 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.

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Staff writer Wayne Washington contributed to this article.