Oakland to Apply to State Commission

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Oakland Academy Charter School is continuing its pursuit of a Charter, according to founding trustee Isaac Lassiter. Since Oakland Elementary was closed in May 2011, the school has gone to great lengths to establish itself as a K-8 charter school. Also since this time, the Gilmer BOE has twice denied the school’s charter application. The Gilmer County school board said it closed Oakland Elementary due to financial constraints.

In a recent conversation with FYN, Lassiter said the school is now currently working on real estate matters. He said as soon as the school finds a location, it will resubmit its application to the state charter schools commission.

Last year, voters were faced with a ballot referendum, asking whether they would support an amendment to the state constitution allowing the state authority to grant charters to schools otherwise denied by local school boards. The referendum bolstered a battle between local and state authority, comingling it with the issue of the value of public education versus charter education. Added to these issues, was the vague and obfuscated phrasing of the referendum as presented on the ballot:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow local or state approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities.”

Critics of the referendum said the wording of it merely asked voters if they supported the concept of a charter school, not specifically if the state would have authority to grant charters against the wishes of local boards of education and, conceivably local communities, according to the argument. Other critics, like local superintendents, said the amendment would take control away from local boards of education and transfer that control to the state. Superintendents were also concerned that the expected influx of charter schools would funnel state funding away from traditional public schools in local districts to charter schools. One of the more outspoken adversaries of the amendment, Fannin County Superintendent Mark Henson said his district (and likely other districts around the state) is already under-funded annually in state QBE funding by $2 million dollars.

“If this passes, how will the state now come up with funding for charter schools when it can’t even fully fund existing public schools?”

Henson said repeatedly during BOE meetings last year. When FYN asked the governor’s office where the money for charter schools would come from, we were told simply, from the General Fund.

Georgia’s 2013 budget makes an attempts to address these concerns.

According the governor’s 2013 budget proposal, the state adds $87.9 million to fund enrollment growth for QBE, with no reduction to current QBE funds, the governor states. The proposal also allocates money for charters. “I am also recommending $8.7 million in both budgets years for supplemental grants to state special charter schools that were affected by the Georgia Supreme Court decision,” Deal said in the proposal’s introduction. However, school districts like Fannin still say they’re under funded in QBE funding by $2.1 million for this year.

In Gilmer County, the BOE told Oakland following both application denials that the essential reason for the rejection of the application was financial. In a letter explaining the denial, Gilmer Superintendent Bryan Dorsey highlighted the district’s financial situation.

“The local tax digest dropped 17 percent for 2010, 13 percent for 2011,”

he said, adding,

“All projections for the local tax digest indicates a decrease for 2012.”

He also explained the state implemented $2.6 million in austerity cuts for FY12, which he said would have to be absorbed by the local taxpayers. Additionally, Dorsey noted projected revenues and expenditures for the FY 12 budget were balanced by reducing the budget by 15 percent or 6.3 million dollars, implementing a 1.5 mill roll up on property taxes and reducing the school calendar to 170 days.

Later in the letter, Dorsey also noted the charter’s proposed budget is not financially viable. He explained specifically the budget reveals inadequate funding for special education programs, teaching salaries and transportation.

In the second denial letter, Dorsey said approving a charter school would harm all students in the district due to the financial consequences of funding an additional school.

Lassiter retaliated, saying in the second letter the superintendent did not give any specific financial evidence to explain the budgetary constraints of the school system. Rather, Lassiter said Dorsey personally attacked Dr. Raiford Cantrell, who spoke on behalf of OACS during the meeting, saying that Cantrell oversaw budget increases during his tenure as Gilmer superintendent.

Ironically, though, Gilmer has been quietly preparing a charter application of its own. During its workshop on June 13th, the district announced it will hold two public hearings on July 2nd at 9:00 A.M. and 6:00 P.M. at the board of education offices to hear further public input on Gilmer County’s Charter System Application.

The application is a response to a state mandate requiring every school system in Georgia to decide on a designation for their district by July 2015. The three choices of designations are Charter System, IE2 (Investment in Education Excellence) and Status Quo. The Charter System and IE2 differ in their authoritative structure, yet both receive waivers to certain state regulations. In contrast, though, Status Quo does not receive any waivers. During a talk in Fannin County last summer, DOE Policy Division Director Louis Erste explained that charters and IE2 systems receive waivers from certain state regulations, saving school systems money.

In one sense, the move seems like Gilmer’s offering an olive branch to Oakland. But, Lassiter says it has no substance, calling it only a banner to be waved. He said it will be of no benefit to Oakland, adding the application was crafted by fulltime employees of Gilmer County schools, not the public. During the June 13th workshop, Gifted Curriculum Coordinator Carl Day thanked public participation on committees, but also said someone from the state department had helped him compile the 38 page application.

Now that the referendum has passed, Oakland can now seek charter approval from the state charter commission, which can approve charter applications denied by local boards.

Lassiter is optimistic and says he expects the application will be approved shortly following submission to the state charter commission.

“Real school change in this county, like in the state / country, will come when the public has a direct role, responsibility, and ongoing authority for their children’s education,”

Lassiter said in an email.

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