Proponents of the November charter school amendment have protested state School Superintendent John Barge’s public stand against the amendment on the DOE web site, which led the state Department of Education to take down a 29-point position paper highlighting the reasons. A link to that paper was on the Georgia Department of Education’s home page.
Today, Attorney General Sam Olens notified Barge to alert local school boards that they “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. They may not do this directly or indirectly through associations to which they may belong.”
But Atlanta attorney Emmet Bondurant says Olens — who cited a Bondurant case in his letter — cannot stop elected officials from protesting the amendment.
I represented the plaintiffs in McKinney v. Brown, one of the leading cases cited in the AG’s opinion..
While the AG is right that a public agency (including the governor and the Legislature) should not use public funds to try to influence the outcome of a referendum, it does not follow that John Barge, as the elected State School Superintendent, or local School Superintendents or members of local School Boards are also prohibited from speaking out and advocating the passage or the defeat of a referendum.
They have the same First Amendment rights as any other citizen to speak out in opposition to a constitutional amendment. The fact that their position may be contrary to that of the Governor and the Republican administration is of no consequence.
The opinion states only that they may not spend public funds or resources to influence the voters’ decision. The same principle applies with equal force to the Governor, the Speaker and other public officials. They should not use public funds, or public resources, (including staff time and public email and web sites) to support ratification.
What’s odd to me about this issue is that it can cut both ways. I have seen charter schools bring their students to the Legislature and to rallies to support the amendment.
Is that also illegal due to the public costs of bringing teachers and kids to the Capitol during the school day?
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog