Judge tosses out complaint against GCPS

J. Alvin Wilbanks

J. Alvin Wilbanks

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A Gwinnett County Superior Court judged tossed out a complaint against local school officials on Thursday that alleged they were campaigning against a constitutional amendment on the taxpayer's dime.

Stating that plaintiffs and attorneys did not meet a 10-day deadline to file documents that verified their claims, Superior Court Judge Dawson Jackson dismissed the complaint, which alleged local leaders were using time and money to campaign against a Nov. 6 ballot question.

The judge's order was made public about 24 hours after Wednesday's hearing in which lawyers on both sides argued the case.

After more than two hours of back and forth in court Wednesday, Jackson adjourned the proceeding, saying that he would not rule on the matter during the session.

In the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 8, a group of five plaintiffs -- all Gwinnett County residents -- ordered Gwinnett County Public Schools and Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks to refrain from advocating against a constitutional amendment that aims to affirm the state's authority to charter independent public schools.

In court, an attorney for the plaintiffs told the judge that their complaint "alleges that there was a coordinated effort throughout the school day to discuss the campaign."

Victoria Sweeny, an attorney representing Wilbanks and GCPS, told the judge that the injunction sought by plaintiffs is "asking this court to suppress the ideas and information the public is entitled to have from its leaders."

The Georgia School Boards Association, an organization also listed as a defendant in the lawsuit for allegedly acting as an extension of school board member advocacy, was represented by an attorney who echoed much of Sweeny's remarks.

Attorney Phil Hartley referenced state Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) compliance. The term refers to alleged lawsuits intended to silence government action on an issue.

In his order released on Thursday, the judge also cited the Anti-SLAPP regulations.

"The activities complained of by the plaintiffs involved the constitutional rights of freedom of speech of all of the defendants," Jackson wrote. "Each defendant was speaking about a matter soon to be submitted to the electorate for a vote regarding public educational funding. In light of the plaintiffs' claim, the requirements of state code apply."

State code requires plaintiffs and their attorneys to file a written verification under oath.

The plaintiffs did file verifications, but there were omissions, including one of the plaintiffs and all of the attorneys.

Defendants in the suit called attention to the omission of names on Oct. 12. From that date, the plaintiffs had 10 days to provide all verifications.

Because they did not do so in 10 days, the judge tossed the complaint, citing Georgia code: "If a claim is not verified as required ... it shall be stricken unless it is verified within ten days after the omission is called to the attention of the party asserting the claim."

In court Wednesday, Hartley said that the plaintiffs' attorneys did not comply. He told the judge that they did not provide affidavits in the amount of time specified. For this reason, Hartley filed a motion to have the injunction dismissed.

The suit lists five Gwinnett County residents as plaintiffs: Sabrina Smith, Shelly Nix, Jim Regan, James R. Lappana and Richard P. Schneider.

A similar case was heard briefly in Fulton Superior Court on Oct. 10, but the judge transferred the hearing for a preliminary injunction against Gwinnett County Public Schools to a different location.

The suit also regarded a claim that local education leaders were campaigning on the taxpayer's dime.

Glenn Delk, an attorney for plaintiffs in that suit, said he disagreed with the judge's ruling.

"He is entitled to his opinion, but in my view those technicalities only imply that there was an alleged infringement on free speech," Delk said. "These types of restrictions are not an infringement on free speech."

The hearing in Fulton Superior Court on Oct. 10 involved a group of Georgia residents as plaintiffs, who claimed that GCPS as well as Fulton County Schools and all 180 districts in Georgia should refrain from alleged on-the-clock campaigning against the constitutional amendment.


truthtopower 2 years, 10 months ago

If Delk, Belinfante, and the plaintiffs are genuinely concerned about tax payer dollars, perhaps they should reimburse Gwinnett and Fulton County for wasting money in having to defend these frivolous actions. What he refers to as a technicality, is apparently their inability to follow the statute when bringing suit.


R 2 years, 10 months ago

As a stopgap, the county can get it back from the CHAMBER of COMMERCE


motherinduluth 2 years, 10 months ago

If GCPS had not spent millions in taxpayer money suing Ivy Prep, we wouldn't need an amendment in the first place! GCPS has NEVER approved an independently requested charter school. Look at the GCPS charters that siphon off the cream from our community schools. Then, look at Ivy Prep. http://int.ivyprepacademy.org/why-ivy-prep/


LarryMajor 2 years, 10 months ago

New Life Academy of Excellence is an independent Startup Charter School approved by GCPS and has been operating since 2006. Ivy Prep currently operates as a state charter school, an approval it got only six months ago. It actually demonstrates the current appeal process works and there is no need to change anything.


CD 2 years, 10 months ago

I wish the focus was on improvement of the current system and thus all would be served.


kevin 2 years, 10 months ago

that's what this election is about if everyone would get their heads out the sand.


R 2 years, 10 months ago

NO ... what this is REALLY about is WHO handles the money first and THATS the problem. The team Gold Dome have problems THEY need to fix before they reach into other kitties.

These folks have already proven the lack of audit skills for ALL to see, so WHY commit EVEN more power state wide to a chosen few? If they get more power, will it automatically provide a better result? Are we ready for Tim the Toolman Taylor statewide?

Just think about it team, TSPLOST was first, did that really warrant its focus if the Charter matter as it's being handled right now is REALLY for the children?

Charters YES, but NOT by this amendment text.

VOTE NO and send it back to the kitchen for a little more time in the oven we'll ALL be glad if we do! Because if the brainanics had done it right the first time, WE wouldn't be HERE again so soon.

WHY is there always "no time to do it right" but plenty of RUSH time to repeatedly rework and rebuild? Its the first step, we'll fix it later etc.

STOP and do it right THIS time! VOTE NO!
It's time for a new DEAL!


kevin 2 years, 10 months ago

Has Superior Court Judge Dawson Jackson gone political to send the public a message? This issue isn't about the Constitution. It is about the agreement that public officials/employees must sign when hired to not display or publicly promote their political opinions. These employees can't stick political signs on their property either. These people are using taxpayer money in ways that they should be reprimanded for. This is not a freedom of speech issue like the judge is saying as well. He should also be held accountable for this action he has taken in this case. What a let down for the Georgia court system.


Karl 2 years, 10 months ago

The ignorance contained in your post is overwhelming, kevin.


BuzzG 2 years, 10 months ago

County government employee protects other county government employee.


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