The amendment would give the state government power to create charter schools. The state government had been creating charter schools over the objections of local school boards until the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the Georgia Charter School Commission unconstitutional in May 2011.
“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 voters,” Olens’ Wednesday letter to Barge said. “They may not do this directly or indirectly through association to which they may belong.”
During a conference call Thursday, Olens said his letter to Barge did not “break new legal ground” because public entities have never been able to spend tax dollars to voice their opinions.
“The government can’t tax you and then use your tax money to tell you how to vote,” he said.
Olens said Barge requested the advice late last week and that a second letter will be sent out in the next two weeks clarifying some more specific questions regarding the request.
He declined to comment on whether school boards who have already signed resolutions regarding their support or opposition to the amendment are in violation.
“I can’t answer because they are fact-intensive questions, and I don’t have the facts,” he said. “I’m not going to get into answering hypothetical questions about what does and doesn’t violate the law. … We’re currently working on advice to the state school superintendent on what enforcement mechanisms may be appropriate or necessary. ”
State Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said Barge has not released a statement in response to Olens’ letter but that it was forwarded to each of the state’s public school district superintendents.
While neither Cobb nor Marietta’s school boards have come out for or against the charter school amendment, members of each board have said they are not in favor of it.
Cobb board chair Scott Sweeney, who hasn’t said if he supports the amendment, said he understood and respected Olens’ letter.
“What is clear from the letter is that an elected board rendering an electoral opinion, unanimous or otherwise, is not permitted when district funds or resources are used,” he said. “Nothing precludes any board member acting as an individual from expressing their support for or opposition to ballot initiatives.”
Vice chair David Morgan has said he is in favor of the amendment. His wife, state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell), is co-sponsoring House Resolution 1162.
Cobb Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa said he respected Olens’ statements, adding that “nothing has surprised me in this whole charter school amendment matters.”
“All along, I’ve known there would be some strong emotions with this,” he said.
Hinojosa said he’s talked with a board member about having a public discussion on the amendment, but it has not been put on the board agenda.
He has said he is not in favor of the amendment and in June made a contribution of $500 to Vote SMART, which is campaigning against the resolution.
Marietta City Schools board chair Jill Mutimer and vice chair Randy Weiner said the letter by Olens didn’t surprise them.
“The same principles apply to any similar issue, such as SPLOST votes and bond referendums, of which we have been a part of in the past,” Mutimer said.
Added Weiner: “The MCS board as a whole is familiar with this practice and will abide by Olens’ statement.”
Mutimer said that while the Marietta Board will not declare a position, “every individual is entitled to his/her opinion and has the right to share it.”
To date, all but the board’s newest member, Brett Bittner, have said they oppose the amendment.
In a previous article, Bittner said, “I can see pros and cons on both sides, and I’ve not come to a concrete decision yet.
Marietta Superintendent Dr. Emily Lembeck said she agrees with her board and plans to abide by Olens’ guidelines.