Historic vote on charter ‘cluster’ could create model for DeKalb, state

For the first time in Georgia, parents and teachers will decide whether to convert a group of public schools into an autonomous “cluster” of charter schools, potentially setting a precedent to be copied in other areas.

At stake Tuesday at the Druid Hills High School gymnasium is the education of about 5,000 students at seven schools — and the tax dollars that flow to them.

Even if the measure passes, it will still require the approval of the county school board and then the state.

Some worry the charter cluster could be the first step toward a chaotic breakup of the DeKalb school district or that it will sap resources from other parts of the county. Charter proponents say they want to liberate teachers and administrators from central office edicts that waste time and money and undermine academics. They want unfettered authority over academics and staffing matters such as hiring, firing and pay.

“The idea here is we can have a healthier school system if the principals have the flexibility to run it,” said Matthew Lewis, who is leading the effort and will hold a seat on the local governing board if the charter is approved. The current county bureaucracy is inefficient because “decisions have to go all the way up and get kicked around and come all the way back down” before they’re implemented, he said. The vote Tuesday under a never-before-exercised state law is for parents of children who either are enrolled at, or live within the attendance zones of, the schools — and for the teachers and administrators who work at them. (Parents of children who live outside the attendance zone but transferred to a school within get to vote, according to the organizers.)

The charter petition covers Druid Hills High School and the schools that send it students: Druid Hills Middle and Avondale, Briar Vista, Fernbank, Laurel Ridge and McLendon elementary schools. The schools would remain part of the district and would fall under its accreditation, but they would enjoy a measure of independence.

The cluster takes in demographically diverse neighborhoods, from stately homes bordering Emory University to unadorned bungalows near a Wal-Mart. The majority of students at all but two schools — Fernbank and Laurel Ridge elementary schools — were poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized school meals last year.

About half the students are black and a quarter white, with black students forming the majorities at the high school, middle school and two elementary schools – Avondale and McLendon, according to spring enrollment data. All the schools except Avondale, McLendon and the middle school outperformed the district averages on last year’s College and Career Ready Performance Index, the state’s new method for assessing performance. (Druid Hills Middle barely underperformed, coming within 0.8 points of the county average for middle schools.)

A lot of teachers are nervous about the vote, said Carrie Staines, one of the organizers. They worry that if the charter is approved, the new governing board might not hire them. Or that, if they are hired and the charter fails, the county will blacklist them.

But Staines, who teaches at Druid Hills High, said the proposal is liberating for her. She’s been in the job six years and has seen one academic “fad” after another flow from the central office and drown teachers in meetings and paperwork. She says the charter will give teachers a greater voice in the direction of their schools.

The charter would receive a direct allotment of state and local tax dollars that currently go through the central office. Local administrators would also have flexibility in setting pay rates and bonuses.

“It’s going to mean more money for things that I can do in the classroom,” Staines said, “and it’s going to mean more money for my salary.”

The leader of the biggest teachers’ advocacy group in DeKalb isn’t so sure.

“I just think they’re setting up a parallel central office,” said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators. “They’ve built in all these pay raises, but where are they going to get the money?”

The petition would establish a local handpicked governance board. The seven-member board would establish a nonprofit that would hire all staff, including a new cluster administrator and finance chief. The nonprofit would get 97 percent of the state and local tax revenue designated for the seven schools, Lewis said. The remaining 3 percent would go to the school district’s central office as reimbursement for services selected by the cluster, such as busing or meals.

The premise behind offering pay raises, Lewis said, is that the cluster currently receives less than 97 percent, with the difference “soaked up” by the central office. He and other proponents think they can push more money into the classroom.

Some of their proposal, though, would cut costs. For instance, the petition seeks a waiver from teaching physical education.

If the petition gets 60 percent of the vote, it goes to the county school board. If the county board denies it, there is no appeal. If the board approves the petition, it still must get through the state.

Lou Erste, who heads the charter schools division at the Georgia Department of Education, said the cluster will be held to performance goals if the state approves the petition. Failure to attain the promised goals could lead to loss of the charter, he said.

Erste noted that DeKalb and every other school district is facing a July 2015 deadline to either decentralize authority or lose popular waivers from state requirements. For instance, during the past few years of cost-cutting, many districts have received waivers from mandates on maximum class sizes and minimum days in the school calendar.

The Druid Hills Charter Cluster could become a model for how larger Georgia districts decentralize, he said. “A lot of people are waiting to see what happens with this one,” he said.

Marshall Orson, who represents the Druid Hills area on the DeKalb board, said he has yet to judge the merits of the proposal but said he likes the concept of charter clusters because they can tailor schools to an area’s unique needs, which can be a challenge in a district with 99,000 students. “I don’t think we should have a one-size-fits-all approach for the county,” he said.

State Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur, said some view the charter petition as a movement to separate from the school district. He’s heard worries about what it could mean for “the well-being of those residents outside the cluster boundary.”

Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond said he’d rather see all of DeKalb become a charter school system — like Fulton County and Decatur — rather than a system of charter schools. He fears a return to the 1940s, when the county was carved into 15 smaller school districts. “The quality was low,” he said. “There was little consistency.”

For parents such as Everardo Vega, though, the quality is too low now. His two children are home schooled but are eligible to attend schools in the Druid Hills cluster. He therefore has two votes. He read the 75-page charter petition and deemed it vague on details. The charter would seem to create another layer of bureaucracy, he said, but at the same time it would tear more control from what he sees as a problematic central administration.

If a charter could improve his neighborhood schools, maybe he’d give it a try.

“Yes, vote for it,” he said. “Can’t do any worse than DeKalb County schools.”

Mary Lindsey Lewis, a retired DeKalb teacher who lives within the the cluster and is no relation to Matthew Lewis, won’t vote either way. She has no children in the district and therefore no vote.

She understands that the county school board represents taxpayers like her and has ultimate say over the charter. But that authority is too removed for her liking.

Said Lewis, “Everybody who pays school tax dollars needs to have a voice in who spends that money.”

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