They have children and grandchildren, and expertise in education, finance and law. They are white and black, men and women. Some can jog to their neighborhood schools and others live miles away.
What this disparate group of charter school pioneers has in common is dissatisfaction with the reigning model of public school management.
If their petition for Georgia’s first charter school “cluster” wins approval from the DeKalb County school board, it could set a precedent that ripples across the state. School boards typically are elected, but this petition would establish the first traditional public schools governing board in Georgia with authority to spend the money of taxpayers who had no voice in that board’s selection.
Only staffers and parents connected with seven schools in and around the Druid Hills neighborhood got a vote. About one-fifth of those eligible voted overwhelmingly to move forward with the petition and, in effect, elected the seven-member governing board named in the petition.
Advocates say the selection process was inclusive, with meetings since February that were open to anyone. Around 120 people organized the petition and about 10 times that number voted for it, during four-hour balloting last month.
Members of the county school board recognize the precedent this petition will set if they approve it.
DeKalb school board member Michael Erwin, whose post is in southwest DeKalb, said half the constituents who contact him are for it and the other half against. Erwin is sympathetic to the charter movement — his own child attends a charter school — but this charter proposal is unlike any other in Georgia. It would effectively delegate school board authority to an unelected governing board that will hand pick its own successors.
He is concerned about how the petitioners came up with their leadership and whether the group is representative of all those affected.
Race — ever an issue in DeKalb — is on the minds of those who’ve contacted him, Erwin said. Critics, especially older black people, worry about the effect on the 94,000 or so students outside the cluster in the largely black school district, he said.
“You have an old guard and you have a new guard,” he said. “The old guard remembers what happened during segregation.”
Matthew Lewis, a member of the proposed cluster governing board and the lead petitioner, said the cluster will use only the money already allocated to the schools within it, and will have “zero” effect on the rest of the district. He acknowledged that the county administration may have to downsize, though, since the cluster will be keeping some money that now pays for countywide services.
“If I were in their position,” Lewis said, “I would say ‘I have fewer people to serve in the district now. Do I need the same size bureaucracy to serve them?’ ”
The governing board was selected by an organizing committee — a group of parents and school staff at the heart of the petition drive, Lewis said. The effort started when the county seemed on the brink of losing its school accreditation. (It was around that time that Gov. Nathan Deal suspended six of the nine school board members and named replacements, including Erwin.)
Lewis said his goal is to find a “new model” for public education. He attended private and public schools, and chose the public route for his two children, one a graduate and the other in high school. DeKalb schools served them well, he said, “but it took an enormous amount of intervention on a regular basis by my wife and me.”
Students at Druid Hills High and the cluster of five elementary schools and one middle school are racially and ethnically diverse. A quarter are white; half are black. Lewis and three other governing board members are white. The remaining three, including Theresa Johnson-Bennett, are black.
Johnson-Bennett, who lives in Stone Mountain, is among the parents of about 700 students who got authorization to transfer from their neighborhood schools. She wanted her daughter in the international baccalaureate program at Avondale Elementary.
After a few meetings on the charter cluster idea, she sensed that everyone felt like they were in it together. Nearly all the children at Avondale Elementary are black. The school is among several in the cluster that qualify for federal subsidies because of high poverty. If Avondale Elementary or any school fails to achieve benchmarks laid out in the petition, the entire cluster will lose its charter. That gives parents across the cluster, regardless of race or other differences, a common interest in each school’s success, she said.
She said she wants flexibility from district policies: “Teachers having a little more say about what’s going on, and parents having a little more say about what’s going on.”
There are no teachers on the governing board, but there are two former educators. Robert Thorpe, the recently-retired principal of Druid Hills Middle School, lives in Gwinnett, but his grandchildren attend schools in the cluster.
Thorpe said the charter would free schools to pick and choose county services, such as busing. When he was principal, buses often arrived late, disrupting classrooms.
Teachers would also have more freedom in how and when they implement curriculum, he said. The constant turmoil at the top of the district — there have been three superintendents since Crawford Lewis was indicted on racketeering and other charges in 2010 — has led to a series of unsustained initiatives, he said. Local management could provide consistent support for staff-driven goals, he said.
Kathleen Mathers, who investigated suspicious test erasures when she ran the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, was recruited to the governing board because of her 20-year career in education. She’s a former teacher at Avondale Elementary and lives in the cluster.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to make a difference in how our kids are educated,” Mathers said. She said the board and the administrator it hires through a nonprofit will be able to work more closely with teachers to support initiatives that are “more targeted and specific.”
Some county school board members worry that approval of such petitions will allow “pockets” of success while undermining the county as a whole, though.
“We want to make sure whatever decision we make is in the best interest not just of a few, but the entire county,” said Joyce Morley, a governor’s appointee in south central DeKalb.
But Jim McMahan, who was elected by voters in northeast DeKalb, said nine out of 10 constituents who’ve contacted him are in favor of the cluster.
None of the schools are within his board district, so few if any of his constituents would benefit directly from the charter petition. But many people in his area are frustrated with big government in general, and are calling for cityhood because they see the distant county bureaucracy as ineffective. Try calling a county official to get a problem fixed, he said. “It’ll take you days to get in touch with somebody.”
The Druid Hills charter cluster governing board:
Matthew S. Lewis, lead petitioner, is a former financial services executive who now manages his personal investments. He has a child at Druid Hills High, where he was a member of the school council.
Theresa Johnson-Bennett, a paralegal for state government, lives outside the cluster in Stone Mountain but sends her daughter to Avondale Elementary, where she is a member of the school council.
Scott L. Bonder is a lawyer with two children at Fernbank Elementary, where he was vice president of the PTA and a school council member.
Frederick “Fred” L. Daniels, Jr., a banker and MARTA board chairman, lives outside the cluster in Stone Mountain but sends two children to Druid Hills Middle. He was treasurer of the Fernbank Elementary Foundation.
Kathleen Boyle Mathers was a teacher at Avondale Elementary, then executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement and now is an education consultant. She lives in the cluster but her children are too young for school.
David G. Roberts, financial adviser for public-sector clients, has two children in the Avondale Elementary attendance zone but sends the oldest to a private kindergarten.
Robert B. Thorpe, former principal of Druid Hills Middle School, lives in Gwinnett County. His grandchildren attend school in the cluster.
Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond has until mid-November to evaluate the petition, negotiate changes with the petitioners and submit it to the school board.
If the DeKalb school board approves the plan, it will go to the state board of education for approval.
There is no appeal process if the petition is rejected.