By Lawrence Viele Davidson | Special to Watchdog.org
If time is money, then school officials are ripping off Georgia taxpayers.
At least that’s the contention of those who support an amendment to the state constitution that would create a dual system to approve the formation of charter schools. Georgia voters will decide on Tuesday the fate of the amendment.
A handful of public education officials have campaigned against Georgia’s Amendment One on company time, giving rise to the claims of foul play by amendment supporters. State school and teacher associations say the charge is a baseless attack meant to silence criticism of the proposed amendment. Lawsuits filed last month by amendment supporters against school and school association officials went nowhere.
Amendment One would allow an appointed state board — not just local school boards — to approve applications to establish charter schools. The ballot question states that the measure “provides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options.” Voters are then asked to decide this proposition: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”
Educator associations and the state teachers’ union do not support the amendment, in part, they say because schools have suffered deep budget cuts, and the measure will allow for more charter schools without more money to go around. This is according to anti-amendment campaign literature and the campaign group Vote Smart Georgia, which was created to fight the measure and is supported by a raft of teachers and school board members statewide.
The fight over the amendment does not follow party lines. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal supports the amendment, while the Republican State School Superintendent John Barge opposes it.
But the public battle is being waged mostly below the top levels of state government. The Georgia School Boards Association, which is funded by dues from school system members, and at least two of Georgia’s largest school districts have campaigned against the amendment.
On the other side, the interest group Families for Better Public Schools is among a coalition of business people and conservative elected officials that supports the amendment. Families for Better Public Schools has raised a total $1.8 million, and in the most recent financial reporting period received about 73 percent of its $1.2 million in donations from out of state, according to an analysis of state campaign funding disclosure reports. Amendment opponents have raised more than $80,000.
Alice Walton, of Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. family, gave the group $600,000, and the widow of the California-based retailer The Gap founder contributed $250,000, according to campaign disclosure reports. J.C. Huizenga, the Grand Rapids, Mich., founder and chairman of the charter school operator National Heritage Academies, donated $25,000, according to the state records.
Charter schools are an alternative to traditional public schools. Charter schools operate separately with the permission of local school boards. Georgia has about 200 charter schools that are exempt from some standard regulations in exchange for meeting certain academic standards. The schools typically operate with heavy parent involvement and often are run by for-profit companies.
Amendment One advocates claim local school boards block the formation of charter schools for fear of losing talented teachers, public funds and motivated students and parents.
The lawsuits, filed by private citizens who support the amendment, have had little effect. One was thrown out on procedural grounds. The other was dismissed because the judge ruled that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected the alleged offending campaign material produced by taxpayer-funded entities and the time spent to produce it.
Conversely, the state Attorney General issued an opinion Oct. 3 that school officials’ time and equipment are not to be used to campaign for or against any electoral issue. The charter amendment supporters’ lawsuits, filed on Oct. 8 in state courts in the Atlanta area, present no evidence that public school funds directly financed campaign literature or similar material.
In fact, one of the lawsuits cited an email from the Georgia School Boards Association that admonished superintendents around the state not to take school vehicles or use taxpayer funds to participate in a series of anti-charter school amendment campaign meetings.
Attached to one lawsuit, however, are documents showing school officials — including the superintendent of the state’s largest system in suburban Atlanta’s Gwinnett County — allegedly spent school time planning a strategy to defeat the amendment.
Gwinnett Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks’s day-planner, for example, included at least three conference calls about the amendment at 9:30 a.m. during workdays — Aug. 14, Aug. 16 and Aug. 21. He was at an Aug. 16 meeting at which the Gwinnett School Board approved a resolution against the charter amendment. The resolution said it would allow a state-appointed board to create new charter schools and siphon “critically needed funds,” and “further debilitate the significantly underfunded school system.”
For amendment supporters, the problem is not so much the money spent fighting the ballot measure, but rather the principle, said Bert Brantley, spokesman for Families for Better Public Schools.
“If the governor emailed employees on their state emails saying ‘vote for me and here’s why,’ nobody would be OK with that, ‘’ Brantley said.
The charges of misuse of state resources by school officials are nonsense, Georgia School Superintendents Association Executive Director Herb Garrett said.
“W e know you are not supposed to run off fliers on the school copy machine,” Garrett said.
The criticism “is nothing but a campaign to intimidate” amendment opponents, he said.
Neither lawsuit could quantify any taxpayer money specifically spent on the anti-Amendment One campaign.
On the other side of the debate, the Georgia School Board Association-backed Vote Smart Georgia group opposes the ballot initiative and denies any misuse of taxpayers’ resources. The group has raised more than $80,000. Though Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, donated generously to Vote Smart Georgia’s opponents, a Wal-Mart political action committee donated $130 to the anti-amendment group.
Public appearances by Wilbanks, the Gwinnett superintendent, encouraging people to vote against the charter school referendum, and emails to school teachers’ in boxes constitute “educating, not advocating,” said Vote Smart spokeswoman Jane Langley.
If Wilbanks appeared in public to discourage a “yes” vote for the charter school amendment, “it was surely on his personal time,” she said.
The same holds for the activities of the Georgia School Boards Association, or GSBA, Langley said.
Emails from the GSBA demonstrate awareness that there needed to be some separation between work duties and campaign duties. An Aug. 9 email to school superintendents contained in court papers is labeled “urgent” and calls together a meeting of the officials.
“This is not a school-related function,” it says. “You will not want to travel to the meeting in school system vehicles or use taxpayers funds to pay for your participation.’”
However, the taxpayer-funded GSBA website contains plenty of what the plaintiffs call illegal campaign material. Court papers include an exhibit showing that the GSBA website stated it was against the referendum and contended that the wording of constitutional amendment questions on the ballot was “deceptive because they are designed to make voters say ‘yes,’ and this one is no exception.”
GSBA Executive Director Sis Henry’s day planner for part of August also is attached to the lawsuit filings. The planner shows time blocked out on certain days for calls about the constitutional amendment. Copies of association fliers in the lawsuit read, ‘’VOTE NO TO STATE CONTROLLED SCHOOLS.”
Charter school amendment proponents say the crux of their argument is that the GSBA is funded largely by dues from school boards, which are supported solely by taxes.
On the state Department of Education website, State School Superintendent Barge this summer encouraged voters to vote against the amendment. That message has since been scrubbed from the site. Once litigation was threatened, he sought the Georgia attorney general’s opinion on what school employees, boards and superintendents could do on work time, spokesman Matt Cardoza said in an email.
“Local school boards do not have the legal authority to expend funds or other resources to advocate or oppose the ratification of a constitutional amendment by the voters,” Attorney General Sam Olens wrote in an Oct. 3 letter to Barge. “They may not do this directly or indirectly through associations to which they may belong.”
Georgia’s first charter school opened in 1995. In 2008, state lawmakers crafted a rule allowing a state commission to grant charters. That ended last year when the state Supreme Court found the commission unconstitutional, ruling that only local school boards could grant charters.
If state resources were misused to campaign against the charter school amendment, “it’s not what you’d consider the highest offense,” said Common Cause Georgia’s Executive Director William Perry. “It’s not something that’s supposed to happen, but it’s not like they bought ads.”