have been using tax payer dollars to distribute “anti-amendment propaganda” throughout Georgia communities.
The so-called anti-amendment propaganda in question is in regard to the constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot that would create a state commission with the power to approve charter schools in local communities across the state.
Glen Delk, of Lightmas and Delk, Business and Commercial Attorneys in Atlanta, said he represents a group of tax payers who believe that Barge has been illegally using citizens’ tax dollars to distribute the campaign materials.
However, Dorie Turner Nolt, assistant director of communications for the Georgia Department of Education, said in a statement that Barge’s position was relayed as his personal opinion and not the opinion of the department as a whole.
“We wanted to ensure the public knew that the agency has no position on the amendment based on advice from our attorneys,” Nolt wrote. “…Superintendent Barge made his comments as his personal opinion, not as the agency head. He does still oppose the amendment for reasons he previously cited and stands by those. If asked his opinion on the amendment he will give it, but will not speak to groups exclusively about the amendment, nor has he in the past.”
In other words, Barge will not consent to interviews with the media on the matter.
Delk referenced a Georgia School Boards Association June 2012 meeting that he said was attended by almost every school board member in the state. That meeting, he said, was a training session informing the boards about how to conduct anti-amendment campaigns in their communities and school districts. Delk said he has an audiotape from the meeting.
“Since then, we believe that the teachers union, the state school superintendent and the PTA have been using the schools in the forms of teachers meetings, emails, printing presses, etcetera, to advocate against the passage of this amendment,” he said.
Floyd County and Rome City school officials said any campaigning done in this community has been done on personal time and finances.
“Nothing is being printed on Rome City paper,” said Gayland Cooper, superintendent for Rome City Schools. “No resources from Rome City Schools are being used to say vote no or yes on the amendment on Nov. 6. As a school system, we’re politically neutral.”
Cooper said the public information meeting conducted last Thursday at the Civic Center was rented using private funds.
“Representatives from around the Northwest Georgia school system, parents, PTO, board members, and superintendents attended to get together and talk about getting the information out to the public,” Cooper said.
David Johnson, a member of the Floyd County Board of Education and past president of the Georgia School Boards Association, said that Floyd County Schools hasn’t used any school funds or time to promote anti-amendment positions.
“Floyd County definitely hasn’t used any tax payer money for promotion and we don’t disseminate information through email networks in favor or against the amendment,” he said. “School boards understand what you can and cannot do.”
The group’s complaint
Delk said last week, his firm sent a “demand” letter to Barge, the state’s board and to local school districts explaining that they had stepped over the line by using public resources, employees and payroll to advocate against the amendment.
Information claiming why the amendment would take control away from local voters and put it into the state’s hands can be found at www.votesmartgeorgia.com/facts, and the website cites its source as the Georgia Department of Education. Delk said there had been anti-amendment documentation on the Georgia Department of Education’s website but it has been removed.
“Last Friday I spoke to Stephen Ritter, who is the assistant attorney general who is handling this matter, and Mr. Ritter confirmed that first, Mr. Barge had agreed to take down the information … that was passed out at this meeting from the website,” Delk said. “We said that’s great but that’s not going far enough.”
Delk maintained that now local school districts are doing a number of activities he thinks violates constitution and state law.
“We believe that our constitution makes it clear that that is not allowed,” he said. “The people of Georgia are entitled not to have their tax dollars used to support a political campaign for one side or the other.”
An investigation has been under way he said.
“Mr. Ritter told me he was conducting an investigation into the activities of the local districts, and we’ve agreed to hold off filing our lawsuit until he and I have a chance to talk probably (today) or Thursday,” Delk said. “Today we found out Mr. Barge not only took it down from the website but they’ve now set (a banner saying) that they’re no longer taking an official position.”
But Delk said that doesn’t end the battle, because he is waiting for the state attorney general’s decision about the actions of local school districts, and particularly, Gwinnett and Fulton counties.
“We’re asking that they voluntarily agree to end it without having to go to court,” he said.
“Mr. Barge seems to be getting there step by step, we contend he’s not there yet. If we have to file suit it’s going to be against one or two districts as representatives of all 180 districts.”
But Cooper said what happens after business hours is his own business.
“My judgement is, anything (that happens) before or after work is my personal time,” he said. “And as a superintendent, as long as I don’t use school system resources to be against or for any political issue, then I am maintaining my neutrality on this issue. But after work or before work or during my lunch break, I’m a citizen and I have a right to communicate my concerns on that amendment.”