DULUTH -- During one of his most public annual appearances, the superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools warned of the repercussions to a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee the state's authority to charter independent public schools.
"I am very concerned that one of the pillars of America's greatness is being shaken, and if we're not careful it could be damaged," Wilbanks said. "What I see is a national agenda to privatize, defund and dismantle public education as we know it."
The district's highest ranked non-elected official spoke during the September luncheon of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. It was the business community's yearly briefing on the state of education in Gwinnett. Part of Wilbanks' speech, which lasted about 30 minutes, was directed at the Nov. 6 ballot question, which asks voters to decide whether the state can establish public charter schools.
As a prop, Wilbanks brought a poster board with the wording of the ballot question. He stepped aside and asked an associate to read the text: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?"
Wilbanks stepped back in front of the microphone: "Folks, we can already do that. It happens every day across the state. That is what I say to the voters ... really look at what you're doing here."
Upon hearing of Wilbanks' speech to the chamber, a spokesman for the campaign advocating the amendment voiced his opinion.
"The real question here is whether or not you believe true local control should reside in the hands of parents, students and teachers or with central office administrators like (Superintendent) Wilbanks," said Bert Brantley, with Families for Better Public Schools.
"Public charter schools such as Ivy Prep in Norcross spend less per student while outperforming schools in their district. Opponents should be less worried about who 'controls' schools and more worried about embracing educational models that work and save taxpayer dollars," Brantley said.
As Wilbanks wrapped up his talk, he was greeted with a standing ovation from many in the room.
Wanda Weegar, an attendee at Wednesday's luncheon, said she enjoyed the speech and agreed with much of what Wilbanks had to say. "I think public charter schools are just fine with control from the local level, but not at the state level," she said.
In August, local leaders adopted a resolution during a board of education meeting stating the district's stance in opposition to the constitutional amendment.
Gwinnett County Public School board leaders aren't alone in their opposition.
On Aug. 14, State School Superintendent John Barge announced publicly his opposition to the constitutional amendment.
Barge informed fellow Republicans, Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, of his position. All three were elected in 2010, as Republicans swept statewide offices and solidified control of the General Assembly. Deal personally lobbied lawmakers on the amendment and is urging Georgia voters to support it in November.
The General Assembly endorsed the amendment after the Georgia Supreme Court struck down an earlier law that allowed the state to create the publicly financed, but privately operated schools.
The court ruled that the existing Georgia Constitution gives local boards control over K-12 education, including issuing independent charters. Advocates for charter schools argued that local officials were dragging their feet in approving charter applications. The constitutional change and a separate statute would restore a state commission that would issue charters to private operators.
--The Associated Press contributed to this article