Coweta school system files suit over charter school

The Coweta County School System has joined the ranks of a handful of other systems around the state in filing a lawsuit against the Georgia Charter School Commission (GCSC) and the Georgia Dept. of Education (BOE). The suit filed April 2 in Fulton County Superior Court follows the commission’s February approval of the Coweta Charter Academy at Senoia.

Coweta in early January had filed a request with the state school board asking that the GCSC decision to approve the school be overturned. Then in mid-March BOE offered no opposition to the recommendation by the board’s Charter Schools Committee that the petition to start up the Coweta Charter Academy at Senoia be approved.

In describing the nature of the suit, school system attorney Nathan Lee said that, in general terms, the school board believes the way the Georgia Charter School Commission was set up is unconstitutional with respect to some of the powers given it by the Georgia legislature and by the manner in which the commission plans on funding any state granted charter school.

“The manner of funding will come by using local tax dollars by a school not created by or controlled by a local board,” Lee said last month after getting the go-ahead to file the suit.

Among its many claims, the suit asserts that the state law that formed GCSC is unconstitutional because it allows GCSC to operate as an independent school system, grants GCSC the authority to create and control charter schools as opposed to the local boards of education by people who are not residents of the county and creates “special schools” though charter schools are not “special.”

Other aspects of the suit claim that it violates an existing desegregation injunction, violates established Georgia law, that the GCSC charter is null and void and that funding for the Coweta Charter Academy is illegal.

The suit notes the Georgia Constitution’s position on prohibiting “Bonded indebtedness and the levying of school taxes for the purpose of supporting ‘special schools’ without the approval of a majority of qualified voters in the systems affected. Further, the power to create ‘special schools’ does not include the power to create charter schools. Charter schools are not ‘special schools,’” the suit says.

Georgia Charter Schools Association (GCSA) CEO Tony Roberts in a recent op-ed letter weighed in on litigation issues from the charter school perspective. Roberts said school board members in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties and the city of Atlanta, as well as in Bulloch and Candler counties in southeast Georgia, have filed a lawsuit to dissolve the state Charter School Commission, the two highly successful schools it has already approved and the seven others it has approved for 2010-11.

“While we are in the middle of one of the most difficult economic periods in our state’s history, these school districts have chosen to use public tax dollars,” Roberts said on the GCSA website. “(The) dollars that could and should be devoted to teacher salaries and instructional programming — to sue a public school. This clearly, and sadly, illustrates the districts’ true intentions. Unfortunately, their chief interest appears to be maintaining control over money and power, and continuing to monopolize our public education system, to the detriment of our students.”

Roberts said the Georgia Constitution provides for the provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia. The language here is crystal clear, he said, adding that it does not say that granting charters is the exclusive right and role of local boards.

“Supporters of the lawsuit make a number of unsubstantiated claims. But their main points of contention are money and power. Actually, what they really have a problem with is their lack of control over money and power,” Roberts said. “On the issue of ‘power,’ these misguided school boards falsely claim that the creation of the commission was unconstitutional and only local boards of education have the authority (read ‘power’) to authorize charter schools. On the issue of money, the authors are disingenuous at worst, flat out wrong at best. They claim that local dollars are being used to fund commission charter schools, and they attempt to further cloud the issue by infusing the state’s complex public school funding formula into the argument.”

Roberts noted the GCSA assertion that charter schools approved by the commission are funded by the state in an amount that is commensurate with funding provided for traditional public schools.

“No ‘local’ funds are involved. Period,” he said.

Lee added that the Coweta County School Board is not anti-charter given that the county already funds and supports a charter school, the Central Education Center, but it was not in favor of the charter school in Coweta that was recently approved by the state charter commission.

A traditional public school is organized according to federal laws, state school laws, state Board of Education (BOE) rules and local board of education policies. A charter school is organized according to federal laws, applicable state school laws and BOE rules that cannot be waived and the terms of the charter contract, according to the Georgia Dept. of Education (DOE).

Under Georgia law, a charter school is a public school that operates according to the terms of a charter, or contract, that has been approved either by a local board of education or the state charter commission and the state Board of Education (BOE). The charter school may request waivers from provisions of Title 20 of Georgia state law and any state or local rule, regulation, policy, or procedure relating to schools in the school district. In exchange for this flexibility, the charter school is bound by contract and held accountable for meeting the performance-based objectives specified in the charter, according to DOE.

The Georgia Charter Schools Act of 1998 states that a charter school shall be included in the allotment of funds to the local school system in which the charter school is located. The local board and state board will treat the charter school no less favorably than other local schools in the school district with respect to the provision of funds for instructional and school administration and, where feasible, transportation, food services, and building programs. The amount of money the charter school will receive from the local board will be determined according to the provisions of the Charter Schools Act of 1998, according to DOE.