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School districts sue over charter decision

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

The Henry County Board of Education has filed a challenge to the constitutionality of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

Legal representatives for the Henry County and Griffin-Spalding County school boards filed a joint suit Monday in Fulton County Superior Court against the charter commission, a state agency established by law in 2008 to authorize or deny charters.

The State Department of Education is also named as a defendant in the suit, which seeks a declarative judgment on the commission's constitutionality, according to court documents.

The legal protest comes after the charter commission's recent decision to charter Heron Bay Academy, a school to be constructed in the Heron Bay Golf and Country Club community. The community encompasses parts of southern Henry County and northern Spalding County.

"We're hoping to get a ruling ... before it impacts us monetarily," said Ray Hudalla, chairman of the Henry County Board of Education. "We're not against charter schools. However, it hurts us financially."

Ben Scafidi, the chairman of the charter commission, said the law that created the commission is already being challenged by several school districts, including the City of Atlanta, DeKalb County, and Gwinnett County.

"It seems like a waste of money for more school districts to sue at this time," Scafidi said. "I remain confident that the law will be upheld. I hope, for the sake of Georgia students, that it is upheld."

Hudalla said the law takes local control away from school districts and leaves them, in many cases, without adequate state funding. State funding, he said, is allocated to public school districts based on full-time enrollment. Charter schools take a per-student share of that state funding based on the number of students they enroll.

"The money that the state would take from us, we would not realize a dollar-for-dollar savings by not having those students," said Hudalla. "It's going to put us in a worse position than we already are."

Tim Shepherd, legal counsel for Griffin-Spalding County Schools, echoed Hudalla's sentiment. Shepherd said he believes the school districts have an obligation to pursue legal action.

Georgia Charter Schools Association Spokesman Seth Coleman believes the commission has acted responsibly.

"Throughout the legislative process ... numerous constitutional and legal experts deemed it fully constitutional," Coleman said. "Also, the fact that the commission recently approved just seven schools out of 35 applicants shows that it is serious about providing parents and communities with quality public school choice options."

The Henry and Griffin-Spalding school boards are also seeking "injunctive relief" barring the Georgia Charter School Commission from diverting state and local funds from the local districts to fund the creation of Heron Bay Academy, according to A.J. "Buddy" Welch, legal counsel for the Henry County school district.

"It is our position that the named defendants [in the suit] are taking millions of local tax dollars to support and fund a school that is being built in a private golf community, for the benefit of the subdivision developers," Welch said in a statement.

"The local districts [Henry and Griffin-Spalding] believe that it is a misuse of Georgia law, and the boards of education have to do their best to protect local tax dollars," he continued. "The local districts are requesting that the charter agreement between the Georgia Charter Commission and Heron Bay Academy is declared null and void. Furthermore, the local districts are seeking an injunction that prevents the named defendants from withholding any funds from the local districts to fund Heron Bay Academy."

Welch said no date had been set for school board representatives to appear before a judge.