The Gilmer County Board of Education (BOE) sent its second denial letter last week to the Oakland Academy Charter School (OACS). The letter is a response to the submission of Oakland’s revised charter petition. The petition was revised and resubmitted after the BOE initially rejected the petition last February. In the letter dated November 19th, Gilmer County Superintendent Bryan Dorsey explains reasons for the denial.
According to the letter, the main reason for denial is finances. In the letter, Dorsey gives an overview of the district’s current and future financial strains. He states that the county property digest dropped 17.99 percent in 2010, 13.69 percent in 2011 (adjusted to 5.72 percent due to a 1.5 millage roll-up), and 10.84 in 2012. Also, the district received $2.7 million in state austerity cuts in FY12 and is slated to receive $2.6 million in cuts for FY13, he noted. Additionally, the superintendent explained that in FY12, the district balanced the budget by reducing it $6.3 million, passing a 1.5 millage roll-up, and reducing the school calendar to 170 instructional days. Further, he stated, the FY13 budget required a reduction of $600,000, along with using $1.1 million from the general fund reserve, due to revenue falling $1.7 million.
Dorsey also argued the OACS application inadequately accounts for funding for special education programs, teacher salaries and transportation operations. In defense of the charter’s budget, during the BOE-OACS meeting in February, OACS Trustee Chairman Isaac Lassiter noted that charter schools can receive grants in addition to public funding. OACS, however, was unable to include these grants in its proposed budget, because grants are not guaranteed.
So far, OACS has received a $30,000 Walton Family Foundation Grant and a $5,000 Georgia Charter School Planning Grant. Also, if OACS is approved as a State Charter Special School it could receive $7,000 per student and, if eligible, receive a program planning and implementation grant of up to approximately $700,000.
The denial letter also roiled another issue from the February meeting: the community’s need for a charter school and duplication of services. In last week’s letter, Dorsey addressed the section of the charter’s application titled,
“Differences between the Planned Public Oakland Academy Charter School and Traditional School,”
“inaccurate and misleading.”
He argued that OACS is not offering different instructional programs as those currently offered in the Gilmer system. This issue was also highlighted during the February meeting.
Representing OACS, Lassiter argued that OACS will use project-based learning, saying that Gilmer Schools do not use this strategy. Dorsey, though, refuted the claim. Seemingly to make his point, he allowed students to present evidence of project-based learning at the board’s meeting later that month. As such in the letter, Dorsey underscores the duplication of services in the OACS proposal.
“A new charter school,”
the letter states,
“should not be approved in Gilmer County in reaction to policy decisions made by the Board of Education, but only the needs of the students, parents, and taxpayers of the District suggest that such choice is needed, wanted and financially viable. The petition does not support a need based on that criteria.”
The letter, though, is not the final nail in OACS’ coffin. In a conversation with FYN yesterday, Lassiter said he is preparing a formal response to the letter for a state charter interview in Atlanta today. FYN will report the response as it becomes available.
Today’s OACS interview may increase the charter’s chance for approval. Earlier this month, Georgia voters approved a referendum to change the state constitution granting the state authority to approve charters otherwise denied by local boards of education. Although not confirmed, today’s interview may be an effort for approval via the new amendment.
Superintendent Dorsey and Georgia Charter Schools Division Director Louis Erste confirm that counties will not be financially responsible for charters schools denied by local boards, but approved by the state. In an email to FYN today, though, Dorsey explained the hitch.
“The potential loss of students (,however) would impact our state funding,”
he wrote. Gilmer may also get hit with federal funding cuts come January. If Congress can’t strike a budget deal by the end of the year, across-the-board budget cuts will begin, including cuts to education programs, such as Title One, a program Gilmer significantly depends on.
OACS chances for approval may also increase come January, when three new BOE members are sworn in. In July, all three incumbent board members up for re-election were voted out and replaced. One new board member James Parmer is the former principal of Oakland Elementary School (1999-2009). Oakland was closed by the BOE in May 2011 and resurrected as Oakland Academy Charter School (OACS). During FYN’s July Forum, Parmer said he is not opposed to charter schools, but would vote in the best interest of the students.
One major obstacle for OACS is its case for financial stability. It must prove to taxpayers that if approved OACS will not force a tax increase due to inadequate funding, which would put taxpayers on the hook for any shortfall. For its part, the BOE has made a strong case for denying the charter’s petition by repeatedly outlining the gravity of its financial situation, while OACS has provided scant concrete figures for its plan to the public. Again, part of the reason is that OACS’ budget will depend in part on grants, which Lassiter says are not included in the charter’s budget because grants are not guaranteed.
But, with possibly facing a deeper recession come the New Year, will Gilmer taxpayers struggle with placing their faith in OACS tenuous budget with its uncertain figures? Or will they bet on the unknown?