- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A company running a string of taxpayer-funded charter schools and its founder can’t sue a former local school superintendent for libel after he criticized plans for a competing school, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

Former Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Edward Pruden was protected against the libel lawsuit because his opposition was part of his official position as local public schools chief, the court said. The unanimous decision by a three-judge court panel did not address whether statements deemed objectionable in the lawsuit by Roger Bacon Academy Inc. and the company’s owner, charter-school entrepreneur Baker Mitchell Jr., were libelous.

Pruden criticized plans for the competing charter school and the profit motive behind Mitchell’s company, which is paid to manage the schools which operate with fewer rules than traditional public schools. South Brunswick Charter School, which instructs children in kindergarten through fifth grade, opened anyway in 2014.

“We don’t run our schools for a profit. We don’t run our schools for just some of the children. We operate Brunswick County schools for all of the children,” Pruden said in a 2013 video Mitchell and the company cited as objectionable. “As for that competition - game on.”

On behalf of the 12,000-student Brunswick school district, Pruden also opposed the startup school in an impact statement to education officials. The proposed charter school offered nothing that the traditional public schools weren’t already doing, and Mitchell’s companies profited from the more than $2 million a year in taxpayer money drawn away from existing schools, the letter said.

Pruden’s “actions were consistent with the duties and authority of a superintendent and constituted permissible opinions regarding his concerns for the approval of a new charter school,” the court opinion said.

Mitchell’s company also operates schools in Leland, Whiteville and Wilmington under contract with the nonprofit group Charter Day School Inc., which was granted the charters by state school officials to operate with taxpayer money. The company is paid to provide supplies and management know-how to run the schools.

Roger Bacon Academy is one of a growing number of charter-school management companies. They have grown with the interest in charter schools, which many parents have embraced as competition for poorly performing traditional public schools.

Opponents argue charter schools contribute to racial re-segregation and drain money from tradition schools, which especially in rural areas struggle to attract quality teachers. Supporters point to academic measures that show many performing better than traditional schools while being held accountable by parents who can readily transfer their children back to traditional schools.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio

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