Georgia Attorney General Will Investigate Cherokee County School District

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said Friday his office will open an investigation into how the Cherokee County School District responded to a citizen’s request for information.

The Georgia Open Records Act should give citizens a reasonable path to request information from their local governments, including school districts.  But how open is open when a local school district tries to charge $324,608 for the information?  That happened this week when Atlanta attorney Keith Meador sent a request to the Cherokee County School District.

On Monday June 20 Meador sent a request to Cherokee County School Superintendent Frank Petruzielo.  Meador asked for documents including emails and other communications that pertain to the proposed Cherokee County Academy charter school.  The request dates were not extensive; Meador asked for communications between May 16, 2011 and June 20.

Why does this matter to anyone?  Cherokee Charter Academy is among 16 schools whose state Charter Schools Commission authorizations were overturned last month when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the commission is unconstitutional.

Like other affected charter schools, the Academy has gone back to its local school district to request a temporary one-year authorization.  Update:  In a Friday evening 4-3 vote, the Cherokee County Board of Education rejected the Academy application.

This was the Academy’s third attempt.  Cherokee’s board rejected the two earlier applications but that was before the November 2010 voting that elected some members who were considered more supportive of charters.  Academy supporters have said the district encouraged teachers to oppose the charter school because it would threaten their jobs.  Meador said his request was sent because “in my opinion, these issues don’t affect the current teachers.”

The state Open Records Act requires that local governments respond to requests within three days.  The Act permits governments to recover costs for employee time and copying.  Meador received his response on Thursday June 23.

The district told Meador it would need a $324,608 check to begin work and it would take 463 days to satisfy his information request.  That would be the equivalent of seven employees working 110 eight-hour days each to recover information created over the May 16 – June 20 period.  In total, the district said it would take 6,185 hours to recover the information.

Meador has filed hundreds of similar open record act requests in more than 20 states.  “I have never in all my years gotten back that this is going to take hundreds of thousands of dollars and this will take a year and a half to get back to you, “ Meador said.  “I’ve already requested that the Attorney General’s office look into this as a non-responsive response.”

On Friday afternoon, after he reviewed the request and the district response, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens told the Foundation, “Our office will open an investigation into this matter. The response causes concern.”

Meador’s request and district response were shown to Andrew Lewis, executive vice president at the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “These are the exact type of shenanigans that charter school founders must deal with when attempting to get a school authorized,” Lewis said.  “It shows a clear need for having an authorizer other than local boards of education.”

Cherokee Charter Academy is trying to open as a brick-and-mortar school.  This issue was discussed last week, on Monday June 16, when school officials would not permit a CBSAtlanta television reporter to enter a scheduled public board meeting.  Some parents and teachers were also kept outside.  Here is a link to the station’s coverage of the Monday June 16 meeting.

The state Board of Education will meet next Tuesday morning to consider state special school charter applications from any former commission school that still needs authorization to open in August.  That is expected to include Cherokee after the school district board turned down its application for a third time.


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