Since 2002, the McDuffie County School System has been involved in a lawsuit against the state. And in 2009, they are pulling out.
McDuffie County joined the Consortium for Adequate School Funding under the leadership of former School Superintendent Ed Grisham. The CFASF is a non-partisan coalition of school systems actively filing a lawsuit based on the state's obligation under the Georgia Constitution to provide an adequate education for all children.
The office of Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue issued a press release Feb. 3 that said Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker issued an opinion that "Georgia Boards of Education are not empowered to share services by creating and utilizing a nonprofit corporation such as the CFASF for the purpose of challenging state school funding by litigation or otherwise."
In response to the attorney general's statement, McDuffie County School Superintendent Mark Petersen said he is confused because the legal action has been in courts before judges since 2004, and no one has questioned the legality of it. But he will comply with the opinion.
"You would think they make decisions based on what's best for them at the time," Dr. Petersen said. "I don't know how you can do that several years after it started, saying you can't do it." But at this point in time, McDuffie County Schools is going to put it on hold. We are still interested. We still believe in the cause, but I'm a rule follower. And if the attorney general says "no,' then I've got to reevaluate the position for the school system, because I'm responsible for the safety and the well-being of the school system. And I'm certainly not going to put our system in jeopardy of anything."
Since the lawsuit was filed in 2004, the first judge in the case was murdered and the second was removed because of state cuts, according to Joseph Martin, the executive director of the consortium. During those years, the state also has filed a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment, both of which were denied. The consortium withdrew their initial lawsuit after it was transferred to a new judge.
Mr. Martin said a new complaint is completed, nearly 100 pages long and focusing on the state's abdication of its responsibility to students. The evidence consists of research compiled into 50 depositions and over 500,000 pages of documents. Fifty systems across Georgia currently belong to the consortium, sharing the legal costs in annual payments. McDuffie Schools Comptroller Tom Smalley said the costs are going up each year, and McDuffie has begun dividing their share into two payments. The first payment for 2009 -- $12,765.00 - has been made, but Dr. Petersen said the second payment will not be made "until I'm told by the powers that be that it's okay." Since becoming involved in 2002, Mr. Smalley said McDuffie County has paid $106,151 to the consortium.
"A rising tide raises all ships," Dr. Petersen said. "What we are doing will help every school system in Georgia. Obviously, there's going to be expense to be able to push forward. But we should not have to spend general fund money to get more money of the state as required by the state constitution. Since they are not fulfilling their obligation, we feel it is imperative to stand up for the boys and girls of McDuffie County and fight for them."
Sixty-five percent of McDuffie County Schools' budget is funded by the state, 10 percent by the federal government and 25 percent from local taxes, according to Mr. Smalley. Since 2002, the unrestored austerity cuts from the state to local funds have been $6,325,755. In the fiscal year 2008, mandated programs were underfunded by the state to the amount of $4,458,273.18.
Even though they are struggling with budgets, Governor Perdue said in his recent press release that school systems should be focusing on educating children rather than taking the state to court.
"This ruling (from the Attorney General) makes it clear that local school systems should focus on their legal responsibility of educating children instead of wasting taxpayer funds to pay lawyers suing the state," Gov. Perdue said.
But Mr. Martin said the lawsuit carries out that responsibility."The real story is that this opinion does not create any barrier to the continuing efforts by school systems and others across our state to require the State of Georgia to fulfill its constitutional obligation to all of Georgia's students," he said Monday in an e-mail.