GCPS appeal has charter head 'mad'

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The chairman of the Georgia Charter Schools Association said Friday he's "mad" that Gwinnett County Public Schools has decided to appeal a Fulton County Superior Court judge's decision that a state agency is constitutional.

The Gwinnett County Board of Education unanimously voted Thursday evening to authorize its attorneys to appeal the decision rendered on May 7 by Judge Wendy Shoob. Seven public school districts, including Gwinnett, argued that the Georgia Charter Schools Commission is creating an independent school system prohibited by the state constitution.

"This is grounded in a lawsuit about a constitutional question," Gwinnett County Board of Education Chairwoman Mary Kay Murphy said. "And that question is, 'Does the law allow locally elected members of a community to be bypassed in regards to funding of public education?'"

Charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars but are given flexibility to determine how they will meet federal education benchmarks. They are often run by groups of parents, community members, educators or business owners.

The law creating the Charter Schools Commission passed in 2008, part of a series of state laws throughout the last decade that have made Georgia one of the most open states for the schools.

The commission was formed as an alternative authorizing agency for charter schools. Charter school petitions denied by local school boards have the opportunity to seek approval from the commission, and commission-approved charter schools can receive additional state funding to make up for the lack of local tax dollars.

The districts are upset because that state funding is redirected away from them to the charter schools' coffers. For Gwinnett, that meant losing $850,000 in a year when state funding for education was slashed by hundreds of millions.

"I'm mad, since (Gwinnett County Public Schools officials have) decided to spend more money on lawyers while they cut programs," said Georgia Charter Schools Association Chairman BJ Van Gundy, a Norcross resident. "It's unacceptable that they've decided that they were that much smarter than the judge, ... (and) it's incredible to me that a county that prides itself on high-quality education would be so against a high-quality school."

That school is commission-approved Ivy Preparatory Academy, an all-girls middle school in Norcross.

Gwinnett school board members, however, have maintained that the issue is not with the quality of the Ivy Prep.

The board moved forward with the appeal "given the importance to public education and the constitutional issue presented by the Charter School Commission law," according to a statement provided by Gwinnett County Public Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach.

"The Board of Education's decision to appeal is not surprising as it was clear from the outset that this was a matter that would most likely be settled by the Georgia Supreme Court," the statement reads.

Tony Roberts, the CEO of the Charter Schools Association, said the children who attend schools like Ivy Prep should not have to live in daily fear that their school of choice will be closed.

"After hearing arguments by attorneys (on May 7) representing the school districts suing to close the Charter School Commission and the schools it has authorized, it became abundantly clear that Gwinnett County and other like-minded school districts do not like the law passed to give children and their parents choices to attend public charter schools throughout the state," Roberts said. "They think they have a monopoly on education and will go to any length or expense to exert their power.

"... I call on parents to direct the members of their school district boards to get back to the business of educating children and stop wasting time and money fighting a law which has been ruled constitutional and is good for our children in the strongest possible terms."