Judge: Feds have 30 days to object to Peach charter school

After admonishing the U.S. Department of Justice for not settling the issue of whether the Peach County school district is fully integrated, a federal judge has given the department 30 days to come up with any objections to a proposed charter school in the county.

That timetable may be too late, however, for the Byron Peach Charter High School to open in time for the upcoming school year, as its backers had hoped.

During a hearing Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell criticized the Justice Department for not having resolved with the county whether it had achieved unitary status -- meaning the district is fully integrated -- despite an initial consent order in 1974. Several school districts in Georgia, including Peach County, need approval from the Justice Department to open a new school because those counties haven’t been designated as unitary.

“These were supposed to be temporary orders (in 1974),” Treadwell said. “The Justice Department was not supposed to be in the business of running school districts. As far as we know, the Justice Department did nothing (to make sure unitary status was reached). ... The Department of Justice hasn’t moved with dispatch with regards to the consent order.”

The Peach County school board has opposed the new charter school, in part because of the potential effects on student enrollment in the county. The Justice Department has been involved in the case because the school system isn’t officially unitary. Treadwell said the county and the Justice Department had agreed years earlier to make the district unitary but never formalized the agreement.

Roy Lewis, chairman of the charter school’s board, testified Tuesday it would be a challenge to get the school ready by the new academic year had the issue been settled Tuesday, given the building for the charter school needs about $350,000 in renovations that will take about 90 days. The work can’t begin until the question is settled.

Lewis said he will meet with his board to discuss the school’s next steps.

“It’s not dead yet, but the timeline is going to be difficult (to open next fall),” Lewis said. “That’s the decision my board is going to have to review.”

Though the school district isn’t associated with the charter school, Treadwell ordered the district and the Justice Department to resolve the county’s unitary status within the next six months.

During the hearing, Treadwell criticized the government’s handling of the issue.

“If private litigants behaved this way, the case would have not just been dismissed, but sanctions likely would have been issued,” he said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.