Not the one to shy away from controversy, Cherokee School Board Chairman Mike Chapman criticized fellow board member and charter school supporter Michael Geist for what he referred to as Geist's violation of school board policies.
Chapman, who decided not to seek re-election after he was reapportioned out of his current post by the Georgia legislature, said it was "imperative" to point out Geist's actions, which Chapman said "disturbs me greatly."
"Mr. Geist, as I move off the board I feel it imperative that I and fellow board members confront you on your actions as a member of this board," he said. "I raise this issue strictly with the desire to prevent our system from moving back into the past which could very well put our accreditation in question."
Chapman was referencing a time when the school district was placed on accreditation probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS. Chapman noted school board at the time "had a few members who willfully exhibited inappropriate and unethical behavior."
Chapman accuses Geist of violating board policies by undermining Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo. He noted in an opinion written by Geist labeled The Charter School Debate made "false claims" that the school district's Cherokee Academies initiative should be attributed to competition and the opening of Cherokee Charter Academy.
"The notion of “competition” from CCA is illogical, as CCA in the past school year offered no unique programs when compared with school district schools," Chapman added.
Chapman, who lives in Canton, also accused Geist of:
- violating school board policy calling for board members to advocate and for the "educational welfare of children attending schools within the school system" by speaking in support of the proposed charter school amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot.
- violated board policy, which mandates board members to "render all decisions based on available facts and his or her independent judgment and refuse to surrender his or her judgment to individuals or special interest groups."
- violated board policy, which calls for board members to express opinions on items before the board takes action, but stand behind board decisions after a vote is taken.
"While your children attend CCA, it is your role as a Cherokee County School Board member, according to board policy, to have greater concern for the school district’s schools than for CCA," Chapman said.
The "most egregious violation" Chapman said Geist committed occurred when he allegedly attended a Cherokee Citizens For The Kids (CCFTK) meeting in April with the "intention of swaying opinions and bullying the attendees regarding the charter school issue."
Chapman accused Geist of asking CCFTK members who their employers were and while he "had no concern who the employers of the other members attending." That, he said, could be construed as Geist "overstepping" his role as a school board member.
Chapman noted SACS at any time can place districts on probation if its school board members interfere with school administration and operations. He added he hopes Geist would consider his actions "as they relate to your sworn duty as a member of this board."
Chapman also requested Geist to bring forth answers to questions he had about Cherokee Charter, including if they would be more aggressive in recruiting low income families, why the school has a waiting list, if the school can be deemed a "choice" for parents if they can't provide transportation and other questions relating to the school's finances as well as how students with special needs are served at the school.
Chapman's comments received some applause from a few members of the audience.
While Geist did say he was not "prepared" to respond fully to Chapman's comments, he did take a moment to denounce Chapman's assertions.
“My enthusiasm and support for choice and for charter schools comes not from how it impacts individual students or the students attending CCA," he said. "It’s what I think it can do for the students in Cherokee County and in our system.”
Geist also criticized Chapman for coming to the conclusion that Cherokee Charter Academy supporters have labeled the school district as not caring about students.
"It seems to me that you haven’t hesitated in your comments tonight to draw that conclusion and characterize my actions as not caring about the kids in Cherokee County and the kids of our school system," he said.
Geist also pointed to past actions by the board, noting that it "appears" that some of the issues taken up by the board appear to be for "political reasons rather than what's best for the children."
Geist went on to imply that Chapman's comments were politically motivated, adding he wonders if Chapman's comments "have more to do with your concern about my actions and impact to the school system as opposed to the potential impact of (the) publicity and discussion...on next week's election, specifically on Amendment 1."
Geist was referring to the constitutional amendment voters will consider on Nov. 6, which would create a separate entity that would approve charter schools at the state level.
“I think our focus needs to be less on the politics and more on the welfare of the children," he added.
Geist on Friday afternoon elaborated on his feelings about Chapman's comments. He repeated his stance that they were politically motivated.
"The timing of this, I think, suggests that it might be about (gaining) a political advantage in the charter school debate,” he said. "I think it’s unfortunate that we are using the school board as a place to have this debate.”
He also said his "differences in political opinions" with Petruzielo does not amount to undermining the superintendent's authority.
He said the "political" back and forth has become a distraction "when our business should be focused on other things."
"When we are spending time and energy on a political question that is at the state level, we are taking energy from other activities," he added.
Geist also noted nothing Chapman mentioned about the April CCFTK meeting was "remotely true."
He noted he was in a discussion with stakeholders, parents and employees of both Cherokee Charter and the school district and innocently asked where those in the group were employed in an effort to start a discussion, which he said was designed to "mend fences" between both organizations.
Geist also said will have a more thorough response to Chapman's statements by the Dec. 6 meeting and noted he hopes others who heard the school board chair's comments would “reserve judgment until they hear my response.”
While the other four school board members remained silent during the exchange, School Board Vice Chair Janet Read weighed in on Geist's remarks. Read, who lives in Towne Lake, noted she "takes offense" at Geist's characterization of the board's motive on certain actions as being political in nature.
"I can say as a board member for last 8 years, my decisions are based on what’s best for the children,” she added.