ATLANTA (CN) - Georgia school districts are using taxpayer dollars illegally to fund a campaign against a constitutional amendment on charter schools, five taxpayers claim in a class action.
The class claims the districts are violating Georgia law, which prohibits government agencies from spending public money on electoral advocacy.
Lead plaintiff R. Allen Hughes sued the Fulton County School System and Gwinnett County School District, as representatives of all school districts in Georgia, in Fulton County Superior Court.
The plaintiffs claim that school districts, the Georgia School Boards Association, teachers unions and other entities, which the plaintiffs call the "Education Empire," are using taxpayer money "in a blatant attempt" to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment on charter schools, on the Nov. 6 ballot.
They claim that Georgia's Constitution and Georgia Supreme Court rulings prohibit local government entities, including county school boards, from spending public money to support or oppose referenda, campaign committees or other political organizations.
"This case is not about whether or not the voters of Georgia should approve the amendment, which would allow charter schools to be authorized by someone other than a local school board," the complaint states. "Instead, this case is about whether the voters of Georgia are entitled to a fair and free election on this issue, without taxpayers' funds and resources funding an anti-amendment campaign.
"Specifically, these individuals allege that defendant Fulton, defendant Gwinnett and the districts, as well as the rest of the Education Empire are engaged in a coordinated campaign and conspiracy to avoid the constitutional and statutory prohibition against public officials using public resources to engage in political activity in support or opposition to the amendment. The defendants are using tax dollars to fund a campaign to defeat the amendment in order to retain their current monopoly power over public education in Georgia. Despite plaintiffs' written request to defendants, they have refused to take the necessary action to stop these activities."
The plaintiffs say the districts used school resources to print anti-amendment materials and distributed them through students, spent public resources and employees' time on the anti-amendment campaign, and encouraged employees to vote "no" on the amendment.
They claim the districts and public education entities such as the Georgia School Boards Association are using some of the millions they receive annually in public tax dollars to finance the anti-amendment campaign.
"One of the allegations of plaintiffs, in this case, is that defendant Gwinnett has spent over $750,000 over the past five years to pay the salaries of two employees of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce," the complaint states. "Until the local media discovered this fact, the Gwinnett Chamber had publicly opposed the amendment and planned to hold an event to raise funds for the anti-amendment campaign."
The plaintiffs say the districts used public money to pay for meetings where they instructed school board members to organize anti-amendment campaigns and to lobby school staff, teachers, parents and chambers of commerce to advance their agenda.
They claim the districts tried to hide the use of public funds for political purposes by creating Vote Smart Georgia, an affiliated "coalition of community, business and education leaders across the state who oppose the State Power Grab Amendment."
"Defendant Fulton, defendant Gwinnett, and the districts, and the entire Education Empire, have used public resources and funds to prepare anti-amendment documents, distributed the material electronically, given anti-amendment speeches while on official business, adopted resolutions opposing the amendment, allowed representatives of the teachers' union to appear at staff meetings and advocate against the amendment, held staff meetings on public property in which teachers were warned that, unless they voted No, they could lose their jobs, and allowed the Georgia PTA to use students to carry the anti-amendment information home in backpacks," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs want the districts enjoined from continuing their anti-amendment activities before the November election, and reimbursement for the taxpayer-funded activities.
They are represented by Glenn Delk with Lightmas & Delk.
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