Attorney General Sam Olens this afternoon sent a letter to state School Superintendent John Barge, in which Olens ordered all local school boards to shut down any opposition to the proposed state constitutional amendment on charter schools that involves official time or taxpayer funds.
Olens’ ruling applies to school boards that endorse the measure as well. But by and large, local boards of education, particularly in rural Georgia, have been firmly against the November ballot measure. Many have passed resolutions condemning it.
Read the entire letter here. Wrote Olens:
Local school boards 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….
That means organizations like the Georgia School Boards Association, and perhaps, the Georgia School Superintendents Association, would be barred from speaking out against the proposed constitutional amendment.
Exactly who would enforce this neutrality appears to be an unsettled matter. Writes Olens:
You have also requested that I advise you regarding any duty that may exist to take enforcement action against local school boards that have violated this prohibition. I will provide that advice in a subsequent letter.
Emmet Bondurant, an Atlanta attorney who litigated one of the cases cited by Olens as a precedent, sent us this analysis of the attorney general’s opinion:
By his use of the term “indirectly, ” the AG’s letter means only that a local school board could not directly pay for an advertisement for or against an referendum, nor could it use public funds to pay for an advertisement indirectly, by funneling the funds through a third-party organization of which the local school board may, or may not be a member.
This does not mean, however, that local school board members may not speak out and advocate for or against ratification of a ballot measure. The Harrington case, which is the leading case cited in the AG’s opinion, makes that point crystal clear.
Note also that the AG’s opinion applies not only to local school boards, but also to charter schools that receive public funds as well. Although not mentioned in the opinion, the ban on the use of public funds to influence the outcome of an election or referendum, applies with equal force to Governor Deal and other state officials.
Given Glen Delk’s recent threats, I think that it is especially important that the narrowness of the AG’s opinion be made clear to local school board officials, as prohibiting only the expenditure of public funds and resources, and that it does not prohibit local superintendents or school board members from speaking out and campaigning against the charter school amendment.
I also want to point out that although the AG’s ruling is correct, it creates an political imbalance in the campaign for the hearts and minds of voters, by prohibiting local school boards from spending public funds to protect their autonomy and the diversion of public funds to charter schools, while allowing the for-profit charter schools, and wealthy ideologues like Mrs. Walton, to spend unlimited amounts of private funds on TV, print and direct mails aimed at persuading voters to ratify the amendment….
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider