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DeKalb parents demand local control as ‘charter cluster’ petition reaches school board

By Ty Tagami - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The DeKalb County school board must make a historic decision Monday that will either force the central office out of some schools or possibly fuel a secession movement.

If the board approves an unprecedented proposal to convert seven traditional schools to private management at its 7 p.m. meeting, it could inspire a wave of imitators that would reduce the need for a central administration over Georgia’s third largest district. However, if the board rejects the proposed “charter cluster,” it could incite a backlash from frustrated parents and taxpayers — and not just in Druid Hills, where the proposal is based.

“A ‘no’ decision will activate the public to get out their pitchforks and torches,” predicted Bates Mattison, a Brookhaven City Council member who counts himself among residents who think the school district is too big. Board rejection of the cluster plan, he said, would push residents into the arms of a more extreme movement that aims to carve separate school systems from the county by changing the state constitution.

The charter petition would put Druid Hills High School and six feeder schools under the management of a nonprofit organization. The cluster of schools would have its own administrators and board of directors. The petition, the first in Georgia involving the conversion of a cluster of traditional public schools, must win approval from the DeKalb school board and then the state school board. There is no appeals process.

The petitioners say they’ll take only the money normally allotted to their schools, but that they can stretch those dollars further. They want smaller class sizes and the freedom to hire and fire staff. In exchange, they must commit to certain performance outcomes.

The state school board has not seen the Druid Hills petition yet, but Louis Erste, who heads Georgia’s charter schools division, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his agency’s cursory review “puts it in the category of almost immediately approvable.”

If DeKalb denies the petition, state Rep. Tom Taylor has an alternative that would cost the school district property tax money and students. Taylor, R-Dunwoody, wants an amendment to the Georgia constitution that would let new cities like Dunwoody create their own school districts.

He contends DeKalb spends too much on administration instead of the classroom. “If you had an independent school system in this city, you could vastly reduce that overhead,” he said.

DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond has shepherded a fiscal turnaround and says the administration is bare-bones, but that hasn’t silenced critics, who say the district’s colossal scale and top-down management have produced mediocre outcomes for many of DeKalb’s 99,000 students.

Gregory Jay said he often hears complaints about a distant administration. Parents at his daughter’s school, Dunwoody Elementary, are frustrated that the principal cannot remove bad teachers without the central office’s OK. Supplies get distributed per a districtwide formula that results in shortages of things like paper towels, he said, and if it weren’t for the parent-teacher organization there wouldn’t be money for landscaping or custodial supplies.

“The district has become too big and has reached the point of possibly being ineffective,” said Jay, who chairs the school council at Dunwoody Elementary.

A constitutional amendment allowing more, smaller school districts would reverse the consolidating of systems initiated at the close of World War II. In 1945, Georgia changed the constitution to ban the creation of new school districts, leaving old city districts such as Atlanta, Decatur, Marietta and Buford as rare exceptions to larger countywide systems.

DeKalb back then was a land of dairy farms, with a hodgepodge of 15 autonomous school districts, but by the close of the 1940s had hired Jim Cherry to build a unified system. Cherry went on to become a legendary superintendent, establishing a system with a national reputation — a school district that drew tourists to its science center outfitted with a telescope.

The educational innovations helped to fuel explosive growth, said Cliff Kuhn, who teaches history at Georgia State University, making DeKalb “the model suburban county of that time.”

Taylor acknowledges a new constitutional amendment would face significant resistance. It would require support of two-thirds of the House and Senate and approval by voters. To get that, he’d need help from lawmakers in rural areas, where small school systems are struggling to survive.

Northeast of Atlanta, Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, said he’s heard no outcry for smaller districts. In fact, the House Education Committee member said, smaller districts wish they had the “economy of scale” of large urban districts. Some counties have even talked of unifying their districts to get bulk purchasing power and reduce administrative overhead, he said — the opposite of what Taylor is proposing.

Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, who chairs the House Education Committee, was dubious about the prospects of Taylor’s proposal. “I don’t think at this time there’s an appetite for creating a lot of new, smaller systems,” Coleman said.

For decades, though, there little legislative support for the creation of new cities. Then, in the middle of the last decade, lawmakers and voters got behind a movement that opened the gates to a flood of new cities, starting with Sandy Springs in Fulton County.

That paved the way for the creation of the city of Brookhaven in DeKalb. Mattison said that during his City Council election campaign there, one issue hung in the minds of voters: improving schools.

“When I was knocking on doors,” he said, “the number one issue that kept coming up was how do we affect the school system?”

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