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Bulloch to contest funding for CCAT
School officials expect lawsuit to be filed
BOE-Holloway for Web
Superintendent Lewis Holloway - photo by FILE
    The Bulloch County School System is expected to join a lawsuit filed last week by Gwinnett County Schools against a new state law that created a state charter school commission, alleging the school district is being illegally forced to fund the Charter Conservatory for Arts and Technology.
    In June, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission approved CCAT as one of the state's first two charter commission schools. The other is the Ivy Preparatory Academy in Gwinnett. The decision meant CCAT was eligible for about $367,000 in additional funding.
    The extra $367,000 for CCAT, however, is subtracted from the total state funding given to the Bulloch School System. Superintendent Lewis Holloway said the state notified the system the first $30,500 monthly payment would be given to CCAT in September.
    The Gwinnett lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court is the first legal challenge to a controversial 2008 law establishing the independent Georgia Charter Schools Commission.
    Under that law, groups seeking to start charter schools can gain approval even if they've been denied backing by their local district. CCAT was granted its charter in May of 2001 by the state, but it was denied charter status in Bulloch County by the school board, which meant it did not receive full local funding.
    The suit claims the law is unconstitutional because the charter schools commission is, in effect, creating an independent school system, which is prohibited by the state constitution.
    Holloway said he has the full backing of Board of Education members to pursue legal action and board attorney Susan Cox said she hopes to file the lawsuit this week in Fulton County.
    “We agree with the basic legal argument of the Gwinnet suit — that the state is violating the constitution by giving money to the charter school without a referendum,” Cox said. “I hope to have a final draft of the suit to the school board this week for their approval to file the suit.”
    Cox said the suit would be filed in Fulton County and it probably would be argued as part of the Gwinnett suit.
    The Bulloch lawsuit would name as defendants: Georgia schools Superintendent Kathy Cox, the Georgia Department of Education, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, members of the commission and the Charter Conservatory.
    Cox and Holloway said the suit would ask a judge to put the $30,500 monthly funding into escrow until the case is decided. Holloway said the funding will come out of the system's reserve fund balance and the school system should not see any additional changes this year.
    “Looking ahead 10 years, you're looking at a loss of almost $4 million,” Holloway said. “The only way to make up that kind of loss is to raise the millage rate. The board is very adamant they do not want to do that.”
    Back in June, Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia Schools Superintendent Association, said the state charter commission was set up to circumvent local school board control over taxpayer money.
    "I want to be clear that our objections have nothing to do with should charter schools receive more funding from the state," Garrett said. "No matter how you look at it, the commission is playing a shell game with the funding. It is taking money already budgeted by a school district — in this case Bulloch and Gwinnett counties - and reallocating it without approval from the local agencies. The state constitution is quite clear about this. The Bulloch school board has control over the taxes it levies. The state does not have that authority."
    CCAT currently receives between $4,000 and $4,500 per pupil from the state. With local dollars added to its budget, the school could get between $7,800 and $8,500 per student.
    Back in June, Harwood said she understood the logic behind the unconstitutional argument, but she said that ignores the larger picture in public education.
    "Shouldn't money for public schools follow the child?" Harwood said. "We are a public school and I believe we've been good stewards of public money. We have a 94 percent graduation rate and many of our children go on to college."
    The charter school law passed last year is part of a series of state laws over the last decade that have made Georgia one of the most open states for the schools, which receive taxpayer money but operate independently and set their own goals for meeting federal No Child Left Behind standards. The schools usually are run by groups of parents, business leaders or community members.
    Charter school experts say Georgia is just one of nine states with such independent commissions.
    Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, and now 39 states and Washington, D.C., allow the schools to be opened. Nationally, there are more than 1.5 million students in nearly 5,000 public charter schools.
    The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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