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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fulton County judge denies injunction aiming to silence charter school opposition (Update)

Originally posted on Oct. 10 at 5:32 p.m., updated to include former Atlanta councilman Doug Alexander's response to the ruling.

Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge
  • GA Dept. of Education
  • Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge

A couple weeks after private Atlanta attorney Glenn Delk filed a complaint against Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge — forcing him to tone down his electoral advocacy — it appears that his attempts to police electioneering in the charter amendment debate have hit a roadblock.

Earlier this afternoon, Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob ruled against a preliminary injunction that would have forced the Fulton County School System to take down an online Q&A about the referendum. She didn't rule on Gwinnett County — the other school system listed as a defendant — saying that the plaintiffs would need to take up that portion of their lawsuit with a Gwinnett Court.

While CL has yet to hear back from Delk about today's initial hearing, we did speak with the lawyer yesterday. During that conversation, he commented on both the previous complaint against the superintendent — which prompted Attorney General Sam Olens' opinion last week — as well as the current lawsuit aimed at the Fulton and Gwinnett School Systems. In that interview, he commented:

We believe that Mr. Barge — in part relying on the opinion issued last week by the attorney general — took corrective action. He removed the offending documents from his website, he posted a banner that said the state DoE was taking a neutral position on this, and also sent out to all the districts the attorney general’s opinion letter. We think he acted in good faith to comply with the attorney general’s request, so we decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate to sue him.

With respect to the other defendants — the districts — it’s been the exact opposite. Even after the attorney general’s opinion, they’re continuing to engage in these activities. They’re allowing meetings to be held at the schools, they’re sending folks to give talks. The school boards are continuing their activities to oppose it. That’s why we didn’t name Mr. Barge — not because we thought the complaint originally wasn’t valid. We think he recognized the validity and took corrective action.

It remains to be seen when a new hearing about the Gwinnett County School System will take place. In Delk's lawsuit, he lists numerous facts citing the district's improper actions, including a claim that the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce — which has received $150,000 annually for "at least the last five years" from the school system — voiced their opposition against the amendment and "planned to hold an anti-amendment fundraiser until the public learned of these events."'

UPDATE, Oct. 11, 12:58 p.m.: Responding to Judge Shoob's ruling yesterday — on which she commented “They just posted the Q-and-A. I have a hard time seeing how that was for or against it" — Former Atlanta councilman Doug Alexander responded:

I am disappointed in Judge Wendy Shoob’s determination that it’s okay to post “answers to questions” about the upcoming Charter School Amendment because (as reported on WABE-FM) she said that it’s not like the schools took $10,000 and hired a PR firm to print bumper stickers and yard signs, but simply posted their “answers” on the schools web sites, which “doesn’t cost anything.”

Your Honor, there is a cost, and taxpayers have to pay it. Establishing and maintaining a web site cost money — our money. It took someone — either a school employee or a consultant — time to write out these “answers” and put them up on the site. That person’s time cost money — our money.

Schools need web sites to keep students and faculty and parents informed. This is a legitimate function and a legitimate use of public funds. But for schools to put up anything — anything at all — that can be construed as being for or against a decision that the people are going to have make on a policy that may affect those schools is NOT a proper function. That it took any amount of public funds at all, no matter how minuscule, to do so, is an illegitimate use of public funds. Attorney Glenn Delk has it right — they can do and say anything they want “when they are not on taxpayer time.”

The only way around this would for there to be a line in their budgets that specify funds to be used for “advocacy” or “voter education” or “to defeat the Charter School Amendment.” At least that way it is in the open and those elected to administer the schools have to take responsibility for it (at least we can hope that they would).

“An abundance of caution” is a wonderful phrase that should be used more often by those who are spending dollars that we taxpayers provide. Those who employ that phrase before they decide to spend public funds will nearly always do the right thing. Those who instead seek to justify their actions with phrases like “it doesn’t cost anything” nearly always will not.

In essence, this ruling contradicts the letter Olens sent out last week. The attorney general's opinion followed a complaint about similar document that Barge posted on the Department of Education's website.

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