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Caution urged in charter battle
AG advises boards against advocacy
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Forsyth County News

Until she’s told otherwise, Ann Crow plans to continue talking about the upcoming state referendum on charter schools.

“Anywhere I have an opportunity, I will speak to let people know what the ballot question actually means,” said Crow, a member of the Forsyth County Board of Education.

Crow is not being paid for her various speaking engagements to local civic clubs, nor is she acting on behalf of the school board. So she’s not aware of any violations to a state law that prevents public money from being spent advocating for or against political issues.

Based on a recent letter from Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, however, there could be repercussions for her actions.

The same consequences could apply to the local school board, which approved a resolution stating its opposition to the Nov. 6 referendum.

If voters approve the measure, it would permit the Georgia Legislature to amend the constitution to allow the state to approve and provide funding for charter schools.

Olens’ letter was sent to State School Superintendent John Barge. It points to previous cases to make an argument that “local government entities are prohibited from expending resources in supporting or opposing a ballot referendum unless they have specific constitutional or statutory authority to do so.”

“Neither the Georgia Constitution nor any state statute includes any express or specific provision of law authorizing a local school board to engage in electoral advocacy,” the letter continued.

But Tom Cleveland, chairman of the local school board, said the panel expended no money or resources passing the resolution, which occurred during a regular meeting.

“We haven’t published any literature that I’m aware of,” he said. “It was just us at a meeting … it was an opinion of the board.”

Cleveland said he’s waiting to hear if there will be any consequences. He also said he doesn’t believe Crow’s actions violate any laws.

“She can have her own opinion about things as an individual, like anybody,” he said. “She wouldn’t be allowed to represent the board in that capacity as a paid function.”

Crow is not being paid for her appearances. “I’m doing that on my own,” she said.

Her presentations have largely come from material provided by the Georgia School Boards Association, which is encouraging voters to oppose the referendum, saying it would pull money from local schools.

Several other school boards have also passed similar resolutions, which is why Crow said Forsyth felt it wouldn’t be a problem.

“I don’t think we realized at the time that it would be against the law to do that,” she said. “Other school boards have done it across the state and nothing was said.”

In his letter, Olens said he will provide another letter advising on what kind of enforcement could be taken against local boards that have violated the law.

In the meantime, Crow said she will continue to speak “so that people are informed about what the ballot question actually means.”