LAWRENCEVILLE — A lawsuit filed this week in Gwinnett Superior Court against Gwinnett County Public Schools, its superintendent and the Georgia School Boards Association asks district leaders to refrain from alleged on-the-clock campaigning against a constitutional amendment slated for the Nov. 6 ballot.
The suit — which lists five Gwinnett County residents as plaintiffs — was filed on the same day as a separate lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court against all 180 districts in the state. It claims education leaders are using taxpayer funds and resources to rally against the same referendum.
Led by attorney Glenn Delk, the group of Georgia residents is suing Gwinnett and Fulton county school systems as representatives of all districts in the state for what they claim is an illegal political campaign. They seek declaratory judgment, a preliminary injunction, and a monetary judgment against the school systems. A hearing has been scheduled today before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob.
The lawsuit filed in Gwinnett Superior Court is scheduled for Oct. 24, before Judge Dawson Jackson. Plaintiffs listed for the local case are Sabrina Smith, Shelly Nix, Jim Regan, James R. Lappana and Richard P. Schneider.
Both lawsuits pertain to a constitutional amendment that would underscore the state’s authority to charter independent public schools if voters say ‘yes’ to the ballot question.
According to a news release from a public relations firm that represents plaintiffs in the Fulton County Superior Court case, there is “clear evidence of a state-wide political campaign to defeat the amendment using taxpayers’ resources orchestrated by the Georgia School Boards Association.”
The lawsuit claims that in June 2012, the GSBA held a training meeting attended by school board members throughout Georgia, “during which a campaign organizer instructed attendees on how to wage a campaign to defeat the amendment.”
Sis Henry, executive director of the GSBA, said that the June session in question “was not a secret meeting. The press was invited and the agenda had been posted on our website.”
“The only thing that was secretive about that meeting was that somebody secretly taped the session,” Henry said.
The lawsuit states that the plaintiffs “obtained an audio recording” of the meeting in which a campaign organizer addressed attendees.
Henry said the meeting was “an hourlong session in a six-hour communication workshop ... there were many other sessions offered at the same time ... with more than 500 people at the meeting.”
She said the GSBA’s job is to “work for school boards. We are their association. They are our members. I don’t think I have ever seen a topic since I have been here that has galvanized school boards, superintendents and the entire group, like this (topic) has. It would only be natural that if I work for them, and this has been a long-standing position of theirs, that I would talk about the amendment. We work for them.”
The Fulton County Superior Court lawsuit states that the plaintiffs — R. Allen Hughes, Rich Thompson, Rae Anne Harkness, Kelley O’Bryan Gary and Kara Martin, “on behalf of themselves and all taxpayers of Georgia” — believed that the GSBA used taxpayer funds to pay for the June meeting. In addition, the lawsuit states, “school board members received their normal compensation and reimbursement for this meeting.”
Defending local school board members and himself, GCPS Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks released a statement Tuesday evening.
“In providing information to the public regarding Amendment 1, I have done nothing wrong or improper. These lawsuits are simply another attempt to bully, intimidate, and silence the citizens and public servants who are trying to clarify the amendment in order to counter the misleading language of the preamble and the ballot question itself,” Wilbanks said.
“This is not a partisan issue. Educating voters on Amendment 1 is so important that people from all political parties are collaborating to ensure voters have full and accurate information about it.”
Added Wilbanks: “That said I fully understand and abide by what legally I can and cannot do regarding the use of public funds in this effort. I also know that as an American citizen I have freedom of speech rights that are protected by the United States Constitution. I fully intend to continue exercising those rights, regardless of the tactics employed to try to keep me quiet.”
The suit filed in Gwinnett County Superior Court lists Wilbanks specifically as one of the defendants.
The lawsuit also alleges that Gwinnett “distributed anti-amendment materials and adopted resolutions ... and have given anti-amendment speeches.”
In August, members of the Gwinnett County Board of Education adopted a resolution during a meeting stating the district’s stance against the constitutional amendment.
On Sept. 25, Delk sent a letter to Gwinnett and Fulton County school districts “requesting that defendants refrain from their activities in opposition to passage of the amendment.”
On Oct. 3, Delk said a letter from Attorney General Sam Olens to State Superintendent John Barge — who had publicly voiced opposition to the amendment — laid out a case against elected education officials advocating or opposing constitutional amendments.
The lawsuit states that the plaintiffs’ complaint “does not address the pros and cons of Amendment 1. This case is not about whether or not the voters of Georgia should vote yes or no on the Amendment on November 6, 2012.”
The suit addresses “whether or not the named defendants and the local school districts they represent have orchestrated an illegal political campaign using taxpayers’ funds.”
Echoing Wilbanks’ remarks, Henry said the lawsuit is “one more example of bullying and intimidation that is being practiced from the other side.”
“We are deeply concerned about it,” Henry said. “Civil dialogue is part of a democracy ... and people have First Amendment rights.”
According to its website, the mission of the Georgia School Boards Association is “to ensure excellence in the governance of local school systems by providing leadership, advocacy and services, and by representing the collective resolve of Georgia’s 180 elected boards of education.”