Olens: Illegal campaigning could cost schools money
by Bill Barrow
Associated Press Writer
October 13, 2012 02:25 AM | 890 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ATLANTA — Attorney General Sam Olens wrote to state Superintendent John Barge on Friday, suggesting to his fellow Republican that illegal campaigning related to a proposed constitutional amendment on charter schools could cost local school systems state funding.

The practical reality, however, suggests such an outcome is unlikely.

Olens did not accuse Barge or any other public official or entity — including local school districts — of violating the Georgia law that restricts electioneering. And Barge told superintendents in his own statement that he doesn’t plan to take any action under the laws that Olens cited.

The proposed amendment would create a new state board that could override local officials and issue charters to private operators to run schools with public money.

Barge, many local education leaders and professional education groups oppose the amendment, arguing that the new board would strip local control and divert money from public schools. Gov. Nathan Deal headlines supporters, who counter that the plan would expand educational options for Georgia children.

Leading up to the Nov. 6 vote, campaign tactics have become as much a part of the debate as the policy question itself.

A group of five citizens, many aligned with the school-choice movement, complained that Barge and many local school districts violated state law with their public opposition to the amendment. Georgia law and court rulings generally restrict the use of public resources to support or oppose any candidate or ballot question.

The group has filed a civil lawsuit in Fulton County, though they have already lost a preliminary move to quash some of the alleged offending activities. A separate suit is pending in Gwinnett County.

Barge is not a defendant in the suits, but he has asked Olens for his advice about his own actions about how to handle local officials. Friday’s letter was Olens’ response on what authority Barge and the state Board of Education has over local school district

Olens cited one state law that could allow the state board to recover misspent state money and another that the board could use to withhold appropriations. But those laws aren’t directly tied to the campaign laws, and Olens has been careful in his explanation of what he views as misusing a public resource.

He wrote that it is “highly unlikely that substantial state funds have been directly expended for the purpose of electoral advocacy.”

Previously, Barge removed documents about the amendment from the Department of Education’s state website. He said the act followed Olens’ advice. But Barge continues to talk publicly about his position, and Olens letter Friday repeated that all public officials are free to express their “personal” opinions on the matter.

Olens also noted that the law applies to supporters of the amendment, including existing charter schools.

Barge forwarded the letter to all local district superintendents, telling them, “I do not plan to take any action at this point to enforce the law regarding improper use of state funds by local districts.”

A representative of the Georgia School Boards Association declined comment, citing the pending lawsuits against local districts.
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