Kara Martin, a Woodstock resident and local activist, said she wanted to sign on as a plaintiff in the case because she felt like local boards of education and some schools were using taxpayer money illegally.
“They should be focusing on issues going on within schools,” Martin said.
Filed Monday by five Georgia residents, the lawsuit accuses the school districts of illegally using taxpayer money to campaign against the proposed constitutional amendment that would give the state more control of charter schools.
If approved, the amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot would allow the state to create a commission that would be charged with considering charter requests over the objections of local school boards.
The appointed board would then allocate taxpayer funds to run the charter schools. Under the present law, any applicant who is denied a charter by a local school board may appeal to the state Board of Education.
The lawsuit argues that school districts, citing Fulton County School System and Gwinnet County School District as lead defendants, were improperly using resources by using school board meetings or teacher staff meetings to organize opposition to the amendment.
It requests that a state judge force all districts to stop these political activities and “to disseminate factual information prepared by the plaintiffs.”
The suit says the systems are part of an “Education Empire” that is using public money to urge Georgians to vote against the amendment. According to the plaintiffs, the goal of the school districts is “to retain their current monopoly power over public education in Georgia.”
“I believe that those two districts were specifically put there because they are leading the charge,” Martin said of the Fulton and Gwinnett school systems. “They are the ones that are pretty much setting example of what other school boards should or should not be doing. They’re basically saying they’re going to continue to do what they’re doing even after the attorney general’s letter.”
The letter Martin referred to was sent last Wednesday from Attorney General Sam Olens to state School Superintendent Dr. John Barge, advising that local school boards do not have the right to expend public resources in communicating their opinions.
Dorie Nolt, assistant director of communications with the Georgia Department of Education, said the letter was requested by the state education department, but had no further comment because of potential litigation, though neither Barge nor the state board is named among the defendants.
“Dr. Barge made a verbal request to the AG’s office for guidance for school boards and charter schools because there was some confusion across the state over the use of local tax funds in handling ballot referenda,” Nolt said.
Olens’ letter has come under fire by state and local leaders, including Cherokee County Board of Education Chairman Mike Chapman and Vice Chairwoman Janet Read, for not applying the law to other elected officials and not underscoring equal responsibility for charter schools.
The suit also takes issue with several local school boards adopting resolutions against the measure. The Cherokee County BOE adopted a resolution against the amendment at its April 19 meeting with a 4-2 vote. Glenn Delk, the plaintiff’s attorney, had previously threatened legal action against Barge for posting documents on the state website explaining his opposition. Barge has since removed the material and the site declares a neutral stance on the amendment.
Additionally, the suit alleges both Fulton and Gwinnett, along with the other school districts, have “allowed the Georgia PTA to use students to carry the anti-Amendment information home in backpacks.” PTAs are nonprofit organizations and are not permitted to endorse a candidate or political party but can and sometimes do make their stance known on an issue related to the mission of the PTA.
Martin, a member of Cherokee Charter Academy’s Parent Teacher Co-Op, which is not a member of the National PTA organization, said she believes some school district Parent Teacher Associations are crossing the line when it comes to their meetings.
“Several PTAs have meetings at schools, which I’m fine with because it’s what we do at charter schools, but we do not tell parents to vote one way or another,” Martin said. “We give them the facts and let them make up their own minds. (PTAs are) using a school’s resources to do the opposite.”
Martin said she has been paying close attention to the politics surrounding the charter amendment, including attending several candidate debates, and recently received an email about Delk filing the lawsuit and jumped at the opportunity.
“It was something I wanted to get involved in,” Martin said.
Martin, who has a fifth-grader and third-grader, said she is “not familiar” with any of the other plaintiffs in the case, but will be in attendance at the first hearing today.
“What I hope is that local board, state board and individuals we elected will realize they are not allowed to do whatever they want, say whatever they want and go about in manners that are not legal and think that there will not be consequences,” Martin said.
Other plaintiffs in the suit include Rich Thompson, the founder of 100Dads, an Atlanta-based civic group that backs expansion of charter schools; R. Allen Hughes, who separately has contributed to several libertarian and conservative politicians and causes; Kelley O’Bryan Gary, chairwoman of the Jackson County Republican Party; and Rae Anne Harkness, a DeKalb County mother who pushed legislators earlier this year to approve the amendment for a statewide referendum.
Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob has scheduled a hearing on whether to grant a preliminary injunction for today at 2 p.m. An injunction is granted in cases where a judge believes the party seeking the order has a reasonable chance to win the case.
Shoob has been involved in the charter school debate already. The state previously had a charter commission like the one contemplated under the November amendment. Opponents sued, arguing that the state constitution limits the state’s power to grant independent charters. Shoob sided with the state, ruling that the General Assembly was within its powers to create the body. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed Shoob in a 4-3 ruling. That led Gov. Nathan Deal and others to push the amendment that voters will settle next month.
In addition to being an outspoken advocate of charter schools, Martin in July organized a protest at Boggs Mountain Animal Shelter in Tiger to have the shelter closed amid allegations over the treatment of animals and use of funds.
Since moving from Gwinnett County last year, Martin has also been involved in organizing a candlelight vigil for Jorelys Rivera, the Canton Elementary School student who was killed in December 2011.
The Associated Press also contributed to this story.