Olens On Separating Governing And Campaigning

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

On a day where the political world was focused on the first of the Presidential debates, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens still managed to make some news.  Olens released a legal opinion instructing local school boards that they do not have the legal authority to spend money and utilize other resources campaigning for or against the Charter School amendment.

At issue has been various organizations advocating against the constitutional amendment on official board websites, as well as the taxpayer funded association of school boards.  WSB TV reported Wednesday some have been conducting grass roots political training to oppose the amendment.  Most organizations which had formally declared themselves against the measure have since switched their official position to “neutral”.  Opposition to the measure from local school boards can be expected to remain strong, but efforts to oppose the measure will have to be done by individuals on their own time.

WSB noted in the same report that the Governor’s office had removed a letter supporting the amendment from its website as well.

Supporters of the charter school amendment have been complaining for weeks that local school boards as well as the Georgia Department of Education were actively working against the measure through official channels and in the name of the organization.  Olens’ opinion seems to side with these complaints.

Opponents, however, argue that legislators and the Governor have been openly campaigning for the amendment, which becomes a bit more problematic to draw an effective line.  Legislators, after all, are officially part time state employees.  It’s difficult to see how verbally advocating for the amendment while the legislature is in session could be crossing the line.  The Governor, who occupies a full time position, seems a bit more restricted but still speaks regularly on policy issues facing the state. It seems the removal of the item from his official website is a tacit admission that there are some limits to his advocacy.

Olens has promised a follow up letter with an opinion regarding enforcement actions “against local school boards that have violated this prohibition.”  Clearly, there’s more to come.

For those looking for a better line of how politicians can split personal political advocacy and the performance of their daily responsibilities to constituents and taxpayers, Olens himself provides an active example.  His office regularly sends press releases regarding the functions of his office.  Most announce charges and convictions of state employees who have been abusing their offices for personal gain.  Less frequently, there are matters where the state is involved in legal matters such as defending the recently passed immigration reform bill which went before the U.S. Supreme Court, or Georgia’s involvement against President Obama’s Health Care Reform law.

Olens maintains a personal facebook page and campaign team which distributes his political messages.  Those channels remain highly active, helping Olens advocate on behalf of Mitt Romney as one of Georgia’s most frequent Romney surrogates.  His facebook page is currently dedicated to post debate coverage, using various clips and post to declare victory for Romney in the first dust up.

Olens’ decision to wade into the charter school debate is somewhat risky politically, but execution of required job responsibilities often are.  Having the job means doing the job, and Olens seems to be taking care of business.

Outside the job, however, Olens is definitely taking care of his base.  His attachment to the Romney campaign and frequent tweets, facebook posts, and personal appearances on his behalf associates himself with the hard core Republicans across the state who are passionate about making a change in the White House this January.  As such, Olens – on his own time – is deepening his connection with voters that chose him in a runoff to be Georgia’s Attorney General but may or may not have been focused on Olens’ ability to be an effective partisan.

Those skills, after all, aren’t necessarily what is looked for in an Attorney General.  They do come in handy, however, when statewide elected officials decide one day to run for higher offices.


  1. benevolus says:

    What what exactly is the language in the law that is being broken? Seems like I’ve seen references to “active campaigns” or “campaigning”. If that is it, is there a way to discern what the intent or meaning of “campaign” is there?
    Why is Olens only calling out opponents? There are plenty of state paid advocates too, aren’t there?

    I don’t blame Barge for avoiding the legal fight, but I might bet that he would win the case if he chose to pursue it.

    • Harry says:

      Here’s a layman’s response: An elected official or private person can freely express their opinion, but involving taxpayer funds is, or should be prohibited. Also, I myself get antsy when an entity such as a chamber of commerce – whose members do big business with a school board or transportation authority – spends money to promote some political issue which directly benefits their business partners.

      • Bob Loblaw says:

        Why would a chamber of commerce engage in political activity that wouldn’t benefit its members? Isn’t that the point of free association and electioneering communications? Why join a chamber of commerce if your business will not benefit from being a member?

        • Harry says:

          But there’s a fine line that’s crossed when the political entity gives a sizable sum to the Chamber of Commerce for “consulting fees etc.” that in reality turns into just a washing machine for political advertising that’s being placed by the chamber.

    • benevolus says:

      OK, I still can’t sort out the exact language that is offensive, but Olens does cite a lot of case law in his letter supporting the position. And also, apparently Barge asked for Olens’ opinion, so maybe it’s not like Olens is out there just looking for enemies.


    Weird how everyone and their mother in law was out pimping TSPLOST and ol’ Olens didn’t got jack squib to say about it.

  3. Stefan says:

    The problem with the AG’s statement is that it does not make clear that school board members and similar groups can absolutely advocate for or against the amendment as long as they do so without using state funds.

    This should also be true for charter school board members as they get state money as well.

    Additionally, whenever all the money (or an overwhelming majority) is on one side of an election, you are going to have problems. That imbalance exists here so the gap in messaging and support will be difficult for the anti-amendment people to overcome.

  4. John Konop says:

    How can a private management company for charter schools take tax payer dollars and use it in this campaign? The state approved a budget with the private management fee included, and was not the money to be used on students not campaigns? This seems bizarre that a state would allow the money not to be used on the kids and instead politics…….What am I missing?

    • Harry says:

      Did the money come from their management fee, or other items relating to operations? If from the management fee, I would have no problem with it. That’s their’s to spend as they see fit. If taken from other budget lines, then it seems to me they would have a big problem!

      • John Konop says:


        I do not know, but that is part of the budget process that the State Board should of approved. And if they have all this money left over for lobbying……than the fee should of been lower if they did their job right. Why should a state board approve a contract that is forstudents that is so rich that the private management company can spend it on campaigns? This has conflict of interest with tax payer money written all over it.

        In the private sector, private mangement contracts are used all the time ie hotels, property….and the conflict of interest part is very strong in the contract, because of out of ordinary roll verse and other vendors.

    • bowersville says:

      For the rest of the readers from the article. Donna Aker, president of the Gwinnett County Association of Educators, said: “I’m happy to see the state is looking at it.”

      “At this point in time, I don’t’think they are doing anything illegal,” Aker said. “But this is not something we need to do in these times.”

      Gwinnett teachers are taking two unpaid furlough days this year and are not receiving annual step increases for longevity. Restoration of one or both of those should be the priority if the county wants to maintain high-quality teachers, Aker said.

      The Gwinnett County Association of Teachers doesn’t try to defend the actions of the school system. They call on the money to be put back into the classroom where it belongs. The only person on either side of this debate that has called for an Attorney General’s ruling is the State Department of Education. That would be John Barge.

  5. debbie0040 says:

    Mr. Olens said he is not looking at the charter amendment supporter side because there has not been a request to do so. There will be a request next week for him to look at both sides. It is wrong to use tax payer resources to advocate for or against a referendum. Both sides should have the same standard.

    Mr. Olens opinion could change the landscape of future SPLOST votes and referendum.

    Mr. Olens should be commended for looking at this issue and other issues and not shirking his duty. He has had to make tough decisions that others would shy away from. It is refreshing to have an Attorney General that ignores political ramifications and actually fullfils his duty. Sam would make a great U.S. Attorney General if Romney wins.

    I believe Glenn Sexton filed a complaint with Mr. Olens about using tax payer resources to campaign against the charter amendment. Mr. Sexton did an interview with WSB last week wherein he spoke about it.

  6. Dr. Monica Henson says:

    I received a copy of the letter, as it went out to all public school superintendents. Independent (start-up) charter schools are their own local educational agency (LEA), which is the legal term for a public school district, so their school leaders are also superintendents.

    The expenditure of taxpayer funds and resources for electoral advocacy applies to local government entities, including both school boards and charter schools.

    The Georgia Charter Schools Association is funded by institutional memberships paid with taxpayer funds by the schools, just as the Georgia School Boards Association is funded by district-paid institutional memberships. GCSA has NOT conducted the campaign for the charter amendment–the Brighter Georgia Education Coalition conducts it, funded entirely with donations by private individuals and businesses.

    Charter school leaders have been apprised of their right as individuals to express their own opinions public and advocate for or against the amendment, but they have been cautioned not to use school funds or resources and not to conduct advocacy during the school workday.

  7. Dr. Monica Henson says:

    Therefore, Debbie, both sides do have to abide by the same rules. Mr. Olens’s letter made specific mention of both district school boards and charter schools.

    The difference is that GCSA has actually been abiding by them. No one can say the same for GSBA.

  8. bowersville says:

    Governor Mitt Romney stated in the Presidential debate that Massachusetts had the top schools in the nation. Politifact found that statement mostly true.

    Romney has good reason to say Massachusetts has the nation’s best schools. Although there’s no yardstick comparing the quality of schools by state, by several measures, including test results from a federal standardized test, he is right. His claim would be more airtight if he had said Massachusetts had the best testing outcomes.

    Let’s also take a look at the funding formula in Massachusetts for charter schools. This information was taken from a Massachusetts pro Charter website. I’ll provide the links at the bottom.

    Charters are funded by allocating a portion of education spending from districts based on how much money districts spent on each student. Since districts no longer educate these students, they no longer receive the funding. However, districts that host charters receive additional aid from the state. Every time there is an increase in the amount of money that is allocated to charters – whether it be because a new charter opens or because there is an increase in district spending – those dollars are reimbursed by the state for six years at a rate of 100% the first year and 25% for the next five years. That means districts get more than double their money back over that period, giving them time to adjust their budgets for the loss of enrollment.

    With that information it should be clear that Massachusetts uses 100% of the price spent per student and gives the local district time to adjust their budgets by adding to their budgets. The Georgia proposal doesn’t do that. It has been stated here that the figures are around $8900 per student for public school students and $5900 per student for State approved charter schools. (I didn’t take sufficient time to research the exact figures.) It should be clear, State approved charter schools are being short changed. It should also be clear that the sudden impact on county budgets is immediate with little time for adjustment. If BOE approved Charters operate on $8900 per student and it’s justified the $5900 is a short change. The competition for the difference will be fierce as it has been reported without dispute that the State has never fully funded QBE. The State shouldn’t continue to force it’s lack of adequate funding onto county governments and ultimately onto the local property owner.

    Again from Massachusetts and from the same pro Charter school website:

    To start a charter public school, the founding group must apply for a charter by submitting an application to the Massachusetts Department of Education that explains their plans for the school and their qualifications to create and manage a school.

    There is other useful information on Massachusetts State’s Education website and the pro Charter school website. If found most interesting the collaboration type charter schools.




    I apologize for the length. But let’s get it right. There shouldn’t be a divide with education being the goal.

    • John Konop says:

      Very good post!

      Btw the other problem with the 5900 and 8900 numbers is the following:

      1) Public schools have transportation, higher ratio of special needs and high school cost more especially with a lot AP cources.

      2)The public school figure is a capitalized number. In accounting you do not compare renting to owning for obvious reasons, also growing districts are spending money on schools and building that are not occupied yet. No one would compare two pizza shops via performance and add in a new location not even opened.

      I really think we should be also looking at more how we consolidate overhead not create more:

      1) Combine purchasing with public schools
      2) Combine administrative overhead over private management companies
      3) Combine adminstrative, building, facality……overhead with colleges, JC……..with high schools
      4) Increase on line learning creating more flexibility for co-ops and increase opportunities for more options…..

      • bowersville says:

        As long as the voters allow educators to be pitted against educators and parents against parents we will never get there. As long as we tolerate elected officials diverting us to useless birther type issues and Agenda 21 we will never get there. Speaker Ralston stopped birthers in the House and it remains to be seen if Senators will lay Agenda 21 to rest. There were those in the House that insisted on carrying the birther issue forward and into the Senate by way of a Senate race. The people of Waycross spoke and put them out. We are in a a very unique country where elected officials yield at the ballot box.

      • mpierce says:

        The public school figure is a capitalized number.

        08-09 Georgia per pupil expenditure:
        $9649 Not including capital outlay
        $1640 Capital Outlay
        $157 interest on debt
        $11446 Total

        high school cost more

        Georgia QBE formula shows Elementary students are more expensive (probably due to the lower student/teacher ratio requirements).

        Table linked above shows transportation cost at $399 per pupil.

        Do you have data showing SPED ratios for charters? If not what are you basing that claim on?

        • John Konop says:


          That is a statewide number which is very misleading, because rural districts have high fix overhead via lack of students. Cherokee County during the same time period spent less than $6500 per student when you factor out capitalization and transportation.

          As far as high school this does not reflect correctly districts like Cherokee that have large percentage of kids taking AP ie college course work, which cost more up front, but less in the long run. As you know Cherokee County has the highest pass rate in the state and the math and science students perform as well or better than the top private schools in the state.

          Since you are part of Cherokee Charter tell us what your ratio is relative to the public schools with special needs children.

          Finally your mean number is more of a warning sign if this bill passes that first casualties will be rural districts via the fix overhead problem verse having to provide all the services.

          • mpierce says:

            That is a statewide number

            The 5900 and 8900 numbers mentioned about were in reference to Georgia (not Cherokee County), as are the numbers which I provided. You claimed the $8900 was a “capitalized number”. As usual, you provide no evidence of your asserted claim.

            Since you are part of Cherokee Charter tell us what your ratio is relative to the public schools with special needs children.

            I have no connection to Cherokee Charter (other than paying state taxes). I live in Cobb so my daughter will not attend Cherokee Charter when she enters Kindergarten next year.

            You have no idea what the SPED ratio is at Charter schools, but definitively claim it is lower than traditional public schools without providing any evidence to back up your claim?

            As you know Cherokee County has the highest [AP] pass rate in the state

            2012 AP MERIT SCHOOLS: Schools with at least 20% of students taking AP exams and at least half of the AP exams scoring a 3 or higher

            Number of AP merit schools from Cherokee County: 0

            • John Konop says:


              County students outscore state in AP classes, tests

              Read more: Cherokee Tribune – County students outscore state in AP classes tests

              …….The previous school year, the county had a 74 percent passing rate as compared to the state’s 51 percent. District officials said the percentages cannot be compared between years as more AP courses were added to the curriculum, and Creekview students were eligible for the first time.

              For last school year, the results by school were: Cherokee High, 323 exams administered, 16 courses offered and 69 percent passage; Creekview High. 324 exams, 13 courses and 68 percent; Etowah High, 339 exams, 14 courses and 80 percent; Sequoyah High, 466 exams, 17 courses and 62 percent; Woodstock High, 384 exams, 13 courses and 76 percent………

              • mpierce says:

                Your statement was :Cherokee County has the highest pass rate in the state

                Now your statement is:County students outscore state in AP classes

                Can you back up your original statement or not?

            • John Konop says:

              The reason I thought you were using the capitalized figure is because I did not think anyone would use a statewide figure when comparing numbers to a local school district verse the local charter school.

              • mpierce says:

                1)The figures were from bowersville, not me.
                2)They were not used to compare a specific local district to a local charter.

                Perhaps you should re-read the thread.

            • John Konop says:

              This is more facts from Cherokee County public information.


              …….. The State posts a breakdown of expenditures by school district using this standardized process at the following link. You can view one school district, or all 180 districts in Georgia and even sort them by category. Just choose the district and then select “Expenditure Report.” Beneath the table, you will see a breakdown of how the costs are determined. The most recent year available online is 2011: http://app.doe.k12.ga.us/ows-bin/owa/fin_pack_revenue.entry_form?p_fiscal_year=2011

              As you can see, the total per student expenditure for Cherokee County School District for 2011 was $7,917 (which ranked 141st out of 180 districts, putting CCSD in the bottom quartile for spending). The State average was $8,593 (note: the National average, according to most recent U.S. Census data, was $10,615).
              In the current budget year (2012-13), CCSD expenditures are significantly lower than two years ago, despite serving 500 additional students; and thus, the per pupil spending for this current school year drops to $7,072 using this standard calculation. The initial calculation in the 2012-13 budget summary was $7,116, based on an initial enrollment projection that has since been exceeded by more than 200 students.

              As noted on the linked expenditures page of the DOE website, this same information for State and Commission Charter Schools is not provided. The current budget for Cherokee Charter Academy, a State approved “special school,” can be accessed at the following web address: http://www.cherokeecharter.org/governance/Budget%20Summary%20CHER%20June%2027.pdf

              Using the same accounting standards and removing the same non-operational expenditure categories, the total expenditures for Cherokee Charter Academy are budgeted at $7,381,905 to educate 995 students, resulting in a cost per child of $7,419.

              The CCSD calculation also includes transportation costs at about $395 per student, whereas the charter school does not provide any transportation.
              Thus, CCSD is spending $347 less per child while providing more services.

              Other CCSD vs. CCA fee comparisons
              After School Program
              CCSD $6 per day, parents can enroll 1-5 days a week, no registration fee
              CCA $8 per day, charged in advance (must enroll by the month), $25 registration fee
              School Lunch Program
              CCSD $1.80 lunch ES, breakfast $1.10; $2.05 lunch MS, breakfast $1.10
              CCA $2.85 lunch, $1.50 breakfast, paid in advance (by the month).
              CCA also charges fees for required school uniforms and P.E. attire, school agendas and returned checks. ……

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