School board to sue state
Members: Charter school commission has too much power

SUWANEE - Gwinnett County's school board will sue the state over a charter school commission that board members say circumvents their authority.

Officials said the lawsuit, which is expected to be filed today, is not an attack on charter schools but instead directed to a commission set up by the General Assembly, which can authorize charter schools and take local tax money from a local school system to fund the charter school.

"We do not believe the Charter Schools Commission has standing under the state Constitution to manage and control local schools," Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said. "The constitution clearly establishes that public schools are to be under the governance and control of elected local boards of education."

Gwinnett's Board of Education approved the legal maneuver Thursday.

There are currently three charter schools within the county. The school board sanctioned two: New Life Academy of Excellence and the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, the latter of which is operated by the county school system. A third, Ivy Preparatory Academy, was not approved by the local school board, but local taxes were directed to it this year after it was approved by the Charter School Commission.

The school is scheduled to receive nearly $850,000, or nearly $4,000 per student. That amount is about $1,200 higher than the New Life Academy qualified for, Wilbanks said.

"Any cut we have now hurts," Wilbanks said, noting the system's struggle with the economy, which led to furloughs of teachers and other cuts. The funding cut is equivalent to the salaries of 20 to 25 teachers, he said.

But officials said the suit isn't simply about money.

"We do not do things in a knee-jerk fashion," school board Chairman Dan Seckinger said just prior to the unanimous vote to take the issue to court. "Time has come tonight to take some action in the matter."

It is not clear if Ivy Prep will be named in the suit, but Gwinnett County Public Schools officials said the suit would be directed at the Georgia Department of Education and the Charter School Commission.

The lawsuit, Wilbanks said, will have three main points:

· The school system does not believe the Charter Schools Commission has standing under the state Constitution.

· The school system does not believe the Commission has the constitutional authority to establish a statewide independent school system, as it is doing in authorizing its own charter schools.

· The school system does not believe the Commission has the constitutional authority to direct local tax dollars to the operation of Commission-approved charter schools.

A charter school is a public school often run by individuals or groups outside of the school system. Because they are funded with tax dollars, charter schools cannot charge tuition or set admissions criteria. To open, a charter school must petition the local board of education and explain what it wants to accomplish. (New Life Academy of Excellence, for example, wanted to teach its students Chinese.) In exchange, the charter school agrees to be held to higher accountability standards in student achievement.

If a local board of education rejects a petition, the charter school can still get approved by the Georgia Board of Education and become a state-chartered special school. Such schools receive only state tax dollars.

In 2008, the General Assembly approved the creation of the Georgia Charter School Commission, designed to be an alternative authorizing agency for charter schools. Schools approved by this agency would also be eligible to receive local funding.

This summer, the commission approved two charter schools, including Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross, making the school eligible to receive local tax dollars.

The suit has statewide implications, Wilbanks said.