Their statements come on the heels of Attorney General Sam Olens advising in a Wednesday letter to State Superintendent Dr. John Barge that school boards do not have the right to expend public resources in communicating their opinions.
“(Local school boards) may not do this directly or indirectly through association to which they may belong.” Olens’ Wednesday letter to Barge said.
If approved by voters, the amendment would underscore the state government’s power to create charter schools over the objections of local school boards. In May 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the Georgia Charter School Commission unconstitutional, so state legislators crafted House Bill 1162 to once again enable the state’s authority.
At the end of the letter, Olens said he plans to send another letter to Barge that would clarify whether Barge has any duty to take enforcement action against local school boards who may be in violation of the law.
Matt Cardoza, state department of education spokesman, said Barge has not released a statement in response to the letter.
Tom Roach, attorney for Cherokee’s school board, said the resolution, which passed 4-2 at the board’s April 19 meeting, was in response to questions from constituents, district employees and others regarding the district’s position on the amendment.
The resolution states: “… the Board hereby requests that voters of the State of Georgia not support the Constitutional Amendment relative to state charter schools, which will be on the November 2012 General Election ballot, as a result of House Resolution 1162.”
“If it is considered political, no taxpayer funds were involved in passing the resolution,” Roach said. “I don’t consider it a violation.”
Roach said the matter is similar to what district officials have dealt with in proposing Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax measures to support education, in that the district has not used taxpayer dollars to advance a political perspective.
However, Roach said he has cautioned the board to not take any further action on the charter school amendment issue, but said he sees board members as “keepers of the facts.”
“I certainly think they can inform themselves and the public with the facts without necessarily supporting or opposing it,” Roach said.
Roach said he agreed with much of the letter, but said Olens was “kind of vague” in parts of the letter pertaining to permissible and non-permissible actions of board members.
“I don’t necessarily agree with the attorney general’s opinion when he talks about what (board members) can do indirectly and directly,” Roach said. “I do think that all of the board members have the right to express their opinions about political things in proper setting.”
He also sharply questioned Olens’ application of the law to the situation at hand.
“Why is it okay for an elected office to promote this passage but it’s not okay for another elected office to oppose the passage?” Roach said. “I do recall the governor did travel to Cherokee County to sign the bill that called for the referendum at Cherokee Charter Academy. I wonder if he used his own gas or the state’s.”
Both Board Chairman Mike Chapman and Vice Chairwoman Janet Read agreed with Roach’s assessment of the letter.
“We’re just trying to educate people as far as what ramifications would be if state funding continues to erode,” Read said. “We also want people informed on the amendment and how it would affect them.”
The two board members who dissented in the vote, Kim Cochran and Michael Geist, could not be reached for comment.
Chapman said he doesn’t intend to change anything the board has done in the past.
“I believe we’re perfectly within our rights to do what we’ve done,” Chapman said.
He said he assumed the letter was likely directed to other school systems that have gone farther than passing a resolution in opposition of the amendment — like publishing anti-amendment brochures, for example.
Read said a special meeting was not called for the amendment and the measure was added to the agenda in advance of the meeting, thus not expending additional taxpayer money.
“The resolution is in support of funding public education, which has been the majority of the board’s stance all along,” Read said. “I am bothered when (the amendment) is going to affect the funding of the other 38,000 (Cherokee) students who are already underfunded and for that to continue to be decreased every year.”