DeKalb parents, teachers vote on charter cluster proposal

The petition for a charter school cluster centered on Druid Hills High School passed by a huge margin Tuesday.

Not counting provisional ballots, there were 1,036 for approval and 94 against, said lead organizer Matthew Lewis. The 92 percent vote for approval “shattered” the 60 percent threshold required under the law, he said.

On Friday, the petition, the first of its kind under an untested state law, goes to the DeKalb school board for an up or down vote in coming weeks or months. If the school board approves the cluster, it will go to the state for final approval.

The petitioners seek to establish their own governance board that would hire an administrator and oversee operations at Druid Hills High and its six feeder schools. State officials say if the charter is approved, it could be a model that gets repeated elsewhere.

“Anything that gets us a little autonomy from DeKalb County is a good thing,” said Debra Turner, who got one vote because her daughter is a sophomore at Druid Hills High.

The organizers are the first to harness an untested state law that allows groups of schools to break away from school district bureaucracies.

The county school board and the state must approve the charter for it to become official, but the enthusiasm outside the school gym during this first big step was obvious.

Teachers said they felt overworked and demoralized, and parents said they felt their neighborhood schools were not performing as well as they could.

Several referenced the district’s troubled history with school board governance and accreditation, though they acknowledged the new management under interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond and a board mostly appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal.

“I think Michael Thurmond is doing a good job with bringing that around, but it’s just so much that needs to be cleaned up,” said Sheveeta Bonner, a science teacher at Druid Hills Middle.

She marked the “I approve” box on three ballots. She got one vote as a teacher within the cluster, and one for each of her two children in the schools.

The proposed cluster includes Druid Hills High and Druid Hills Middle, and the five elementary schools that feed them: Avondale, Briar Vista, Fernbank, Laurel Ridge and McLendon.

The area covered by the schools takes in a mix of wealth and poverty, with black students in the majority at most of the schools, and whites in the majority at just one, Fernbank, the highest performing. Most of those going into the polling place were white.

The cluster petition proposes that an autonomous governing board would have authority over all major decisions involving staffing, pay and curriculum. That board would create a nonprofit to employ all staff, including a chief administrator and finance chief.

The nonprofit would get 97 percent of the taxpayer dollars typically allocated to these schools. The other 3 percent would go to the county administration, which would provide services yet to be negotiated — busing, say, or building maintenance.

The petitioners, led by Lewis, calculate that they could reduce overhead and pay teachers more.

Not all teachers were buying that.

Rita Robinzine was on the fence as she walked into the gym, and wouldn’t reveal her vote .

The Druid Hills High history teacher liked the idea of pulling control closer to the schools, but she’s been employed by DeKalb for two dozen years and worried about her prospects as she nears retirement under such a major shift in management.

“What if I get kicked to the curb?” she said.

Melissa King-Rogers, who teaches English at the high school, tried to reassure her colleague. Her frustration with the bureaucracy outweighed any concerns about job security. “My main concern is job contentment,” she said. “I just think the system is broken. I just think it’s too big.”

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