Atlanta attorney files suit against Georgia school systems

ATLANTA -- Local school systems may be indirectly affected by an Atlanta lawsuit filed this week regarding the illegal use of taxpayer money to campaign against a proposed constitutional amendment.

Atlanta attorney Glenn Delk represents five Georgia residents who filed the suit in Fulton County Superior Court on Monday, accusing the state's 180 local school districts of using funds to campaign against the amendment that would put more control of charter schools in the state's hands.

Local boards currently control charters, though any applicant who is denied a charter may appeal to the state Board of Education.

Delk said Tuesday that directly, Atlanta Public Schools and Gwinnett County Public Schools were named in the suit, with the other districts being class representatives.

Both the Newton and Rockdale county school boards passed resolutions in September stating their opposition to the measure, which would give the state Legislature the right to allow for charter schools that are not approved by local school boards.

In Newton, school board Vice Chair Jeff Meadors opposed the resolution, saying he didn't want to tell voters how to vote; and in Rockdale, the vote was unanimous, save for members Wales Barksdale and Katrina Young being absent from the meeting.

After the boards passed the resolutions, each school system posted a link to the resolutions on their websites. Additionally, each board had said they planned to send a copy of the one-page resolutions to Gov. Nathan Deal.

School boards across the state have passed similar resolutions.

NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews, at the request of school board Chair Eddie Johnson, also emailed a request that members of local media publish the resolution that he attached to the email.

Earlier this week, Attorney General Sam Olens sent state Superintendent of Schools John Barge a letter regarding the use of public resources regarding the vote -- it's not allowed. The state Department of Education had published a statement of Barge's opposition on its website earlier, and removed it after receiving the message from Olens.

RCPS had removed its message on its website as of Friday in response to the attorney general's letter, although in September, its school board attorney Jack Lance said passing the resolution was a legal, since the superintendent and his officers are not allowed to persuade voters on topics, but the school board is allowed to pass resolutions requesting a certain vote, as long as they don't use any extreme resources.

NCSS removed the message from its site as of Tuesday.

The lawsuit argues that by using school board meetings or teacher staff meetings to organize opposition to the amendment, officials were improperly using a state resource -- time out of their workdays -- for political purposes. It asks a state judge to make them halt such activities.

Delk said Tuesday that also some school districts have allowed their school PTAs to create and distribute anti-charter amendment material through email and to students.

"We want that stopped," he said.

Cindy Ball, executive director of Community Relations at Rockdale County Public Schools, said Tuesday afternoon that she was unaware of being contacted about the suit yet, but many individuals are out on fall break this week. She added that a county PTA council had set up a booth at the system Parent Academy last month about the charter amendment.

Sherri Davis-Viniard, director of Public Relations for the Newton County School System, also said that she is unaware of being contacted by Delk. She also said she hasn't heard of any school PTOs distributing information.

The suit cites state officials giving public speeches opposing the amendment and several local school boards adopting resolutions against the measure.

The complaint cites a 1981 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that stated: "The expenditure by a political subdivision of public money to influence the citizens and voters of the entity contains within it the possibility of the corrupt use of influence to perpetuate a local administration's power."

Plaintiffs 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; Rae Anne Harkness, a DeKalb County mother who pushed legislators earlier this year to approve the amendment for a statewide referendum; and Kara Martin.

The complaint asks the court to block the defendants from any further alleged violations and to reimburse the public treasury for any actual violations.

Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob has scheduled a hearing on whether to grant a preliminary injunction for 2 p.m. today in Fulton County Superior Court. An injunction is granted in cases where a judge believes the party seeking the order has a reasonable chance to win the case.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.