Charter school supporters filed a class action suit today in hopes of stopping what they believe is an illegal use of tax-funded resources by local school districts to oppose an upcoming charter school referendum.
Today’s suit follows up on a letter Atlanta attorney Glenn Delk sent to state school superintendent John Barge and the superintendents of Atlanta Public Schools and the Fulton County School System, threatening them with litigation unless they agreed to stop certain opposition efforts aimed at a constitutional amendment question included on the Nov. 6 ballot. The measure would reestablish a state commission that could approve charter schools even if local districts reject them.
The suit filed today in Fulton County Superior Court names as defendants the Fulton County School System and the Gwinnett County School District individually and as representatives of a class consisting of all public school districts in Georgia, which the complaint frequently refers to as the “Education Empire.”
The plaintiffs—R. Allen Hughes, Rich Thompson, Rae Anne Harkness, Kelley O’Bryan Gary and Kara Martin—contend they are representing a class representing all state taxpayers and voters. Delk said his clients are supported by the Georgia chapter of Americans for Prosperity and the Fulton County Taxpayers Association.
Among the specific allegations included in their suit are that a June meeting of the Georgia School Boards Association in “attended by school board members whose attendance was funded by taxpayers” included instruction about how to conduct a campaign against the amendment. The plaintiffs also allege that several school boards passed official resolutions opposing the amendment, that school districts have allowed union representatives to disseminate anti-amendment literature to teachers and allowed parent-teacher groups to use school resources to print and distribute similar material, and that the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce planned to hold a fundraiser event for opponents.
The suit does not name the state school superintendent as a defendant even though Delk’s September letter accuses him of using state employees and resources to produce and post anti-amendment materials on the state Department of Education’s website. The DOE has since removed the materials and issued a statement saying the department does not take any stance on the amendment, although Barge said he will continue to personally oppose it.
“Given that Supt. Barge took steps to remove anti-Amendment materials from the State DOE website, instructed the State DOE to publicly state the DOE was neutral on the Amendment, and asked the [state] Attorney General [Sam Olens] to investigate the activities of the local districts, we decided not to sue Mr. Barge or the State Board of Education,” Delk said in a written statement.
Olens’ issued a letter last week stating that neither public school districts nor publicly-funded charter schools could use taxpayer resources to campaign for or against any ballot initiative.
“That letter did not break new legal ground,” Olens said last week during a news conference call. “It simply restated what the Georgia Supreme Court made very clear more than 30 years ago: Local governments cannot expend taxpayer resources to tell taxpayers how to vote.”
However, Olens would not say whether he believed any local districts broke the law.
The suit is seeking declaratory judgment that the school districts’ alleged political actions were unconstitutional and that the court grant injunctive relief stopping the districts from any further advocacy meetings, campaign organizing and material distribution related to the charter school amendment. The suit also seeks monetary damages requiring the defendants to “personally reimburse the taxpayers of each school district.”
A hearing on the case has been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon before Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob .
A representative from the Gwinnett school system said she had not seen the suit yet.
Fulton schools spokeswoman Samantha Evans said the district has not taken a position on the charter school amendment but has tried to offer information about it.
“The district felt an obligation to share information with stakeholders. They’ve asked about Amendment 1 and looked to us as an education force on this issue,” Evans said.