An untested state law that allows small groups of parents and teachers to radically redefine the relationship between their schools and the elected guardians of taxpayer dollars will soon get its first hearing in DeKalb County.
Over the past year, the wounded district has endured unprecedented challenges. It has swung in and out of deficit and neared the brink of accreditation loss. Gov. Nathan Deal kicked two-thirds of the school board out and appointed replacements, prompting a constitutional challenge that simmers still in the Georgia Supreme Court.
Now, parents and teachers at schools in Druid Hills are filing the first petition of its kind in Georgia calling for the creation of a charter school “cluster,” basically a mini-school district within the countywide district. The petitioners want autonomy from the county bureaucracy — and from the school board normally chosen by voters —and control over the most important levers: money and the power to hire and fire.
Their petition, overwhelmingly approved in a plebiscite of more than a thousand voters last week, now goes to the school district for review. This test case, which state officials say could become a model for much of Georgia, will likely reach the school board at a delicate moment.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed DeKalb on probation in December, and threatened to strip accreditation altogether if the board — and the community it represents — failed to rise above bickering. The nonprofit accreditation agency cited concerns about mismanagement and nepotism and also community enmity and resource competition that fueled battles on the school board.
Deal’s decision to overhaul the board seems to have calmed things. SACS has been hinting that the improved behavior will lead to retained accreditation when the agency returns for a review later this year.
SACS will decide by December, and will be sending teams of investigators in the fall — right around the time the school board will be preparing to vote on the Druid Hills Charter Cluster.
Observers say the timing is unfortunate, since it could be like inviting guests to the family table right as an argument starts.
“I think the school board needs to be very careful about how they handle it because if it is racially divisive, and it can be proven to be so, of course there’s going to be an uproar,” said Marcia Coward, the president of the county PTA.
By “proven,” Coward said she meant verification of the suspicions she’s heard among some black people that the petitioners were less inclusive than they could have been.
“How much work did they put into bringing everybody to the table,” she said.
Matthew Lewis, the lead petitioner who will be a governor on the charter cluster board if it is approved, said they worked hard to broaden involvement. He and other organizers said they tried to inform parents by standing in carpool lines and holding meetings. They even had fliers about Tuesday’s vote printed in multiple languages, since there are many immigrants within the cluster.
Of the 1,130 votes counted, 1,036 were in favor of the petition, an overwhelming 92 percent.
“The vote and the turnout seem a clear and unequivocal message,” Lewis said.
But Henry Carey, who teaches political science at Georgia State University and voted Tuesday, said he saw a pro-charter bias in the polling place. His chief complaints were the T-shirts worn by poll workers with a logo of the charter cluster (a green leaf) and a woman near the ballot box he saw urging voters to sign up for a charter email list.
“This is a sham,” said Carey, who said he has observed elections in political hot spots across the globe. “In the most authoritarian regimes, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Lewis said he saw the T-shirts as neutral. The logo was on the front, and on the back was language that merely encouraged people to vote, with details about the time and place. He said the email sign-up lists were voluntary, and denied anyone urged people to add their names.
“Through this whole process our objective has been open, transparent communication,” he said.
Others, though, noted that most voters were white while half the students in the cluster are black. (The petitioners have not released a demographic breakdown of the vote.) Less than a quarter of possible voters — parents of children either enrolled or eligible to enroll in Druid Hills High School or one of its six feeder schools; and teachers, administrators and full-time paraprofessionals at those schools — cast ballots.
Parents both white and black voted in favor. Nathan Toft, 33, who has three young children, the oldest in second grade at Laurel Ridge Elementary, said he voted for the charter because he’d like to see the school — and teacher morale — improve.
Toft is white and expressed a common sentiment among parents interviewed: “My expectations of a public school are not high, but I can imagine a better school than my kids have,” he said.
Milano Harden is one of the black parents who voted in favor of the petition. He has two boys in the cluster who could attend Avondale Elementary but are in a charter school. He wants more charters. “I think it’s really important to distribute access to some of these school assets,” he said.
Whether the rest of the county — there are about 99,000 students in DeKalb — is equally accepting of the petition remains to be seen.
Already, differences on the school board appear to be surfacing. Marshall Orson, who represents Druid Hills, said he likes the concept of the charter cluster but has to see the details before making a decision. (His campaign treasurer when he ran for office last year is among the petition organizers.)
But board chairman Melvin Johnson said he’s heard concerns from constituents about the autonomy the petitioners are demanding.
“What bothers me is the total control of the money,” he said. The cluster board would get authority over 97 percent of the revenue that typically goes to the seven schools, with the ability to hire and fire staff and set pay at whatever level it chooses.
There’s been no analysis of how that transfer of revenue would affect the central office and the schools outside the Druid Hills cluster. Johnson said he must decide what is best for “the entire school district rather than a selected part.” Across the country “equity is one of the primary issues for tremendous conflict,” he said. “I think it could be very divisive.”
Johnson said, though, that he is confident the school board can debate the proposal in an objective, professional manner, even if residents get emotional just when SACS comes prowling.
It will be interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond’s job to review the petition and suggest changes before presenting his recommendation to the board in two months. He said he will do all in his power to keep things civil.
“We can’t allow this to become a racially divisive issue at this time,” he said. “We can’t afford it — not with accreditation hanging in the balance.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR CHARTER CLUSTER
The organizers of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster will officially present their petition to the DeKalb County School District on Friday, initiating a lengthy review process:
Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond will have 60 days to assess the proposal and make any requests for changes.
The proposal, with any revisions, then goes to the school board, along with Thurmond’s recommendation. The nine-member board gets 30 days to consider it before voting.
If the board approves it, the petition then goes to the Georgia Department of Education for final review. The process does not allow for appeal if the DeKalb board denies the petition.
THE NEW LEADERSHIP
The Druid Hills Charter Cluster would be governed by a self-appointing body, unlike the county school board, whose members are typically elected.
The authors of the petition named seven initial board members: Matthew S. Lewis, Theresa Johnson-Bennett, Scott L. Bonder, Frederick “Fred” L. Daniels Jr., Kathleen Boyle Mathers, David G. Roberts and Robert B. Thorpe.
When each member’s term expires, the governing board will select a successor from a pool of nominees. The nominees will have been identified by appointees of school leadership teams at each of the seven schools in the cluster.
The school leadership teams will comprise members elected by parents or staff at each school plus others appointed by those elected members.