Cherokee Charter Academy almost never happened. Last spring it seemed possible – maybe even probable — that Cherokee Charter would never open because of a state Supreme Court decision. What a difference a year makes. Governor Nathan Deal will visit the school Thursday morning when he signs legislation to create the structure for a new state charter schools commission.
“We’re very excited that not only is the Governor pro-charter but he is coming to our school to sign House Bill 797,” said Cherokee Charter Principal Vanessa Suarez. “At the end of the day, all politics aside, we are here for the kids. We are here for our students that want a choice.”
This signing ceremony could have been done anywhere, including at the State Capitol. Doing it at a charter school that thrived despite constant disapproval by the local school board will send a succinct message: School choice is a good idea that is consistent with quality local public education. Perhaps the Cherokee County school board should get on-board.
Georgia will create a new charter schools commission next year if voters statewide approve a constitutional amendment that is on the November ballot. The new commission would consider but is not required to approve charter school applications only after they are rejected locally.
You can find nearly all the arguments for-and-against state authorization of charter schools in Cherokee County. A well-regarded school district that spends more than one-half billion dollars per year nonetheless wails publicly about tight budgets. In doing so, it tries to portray a start-up charter school with a tiny budget as a threat to public school funding. The start-up serves about 2% of the county’s public school students and it is a long way from being a threat to status quo.
The Cherokee County school board has never approved a local charter school application. It rejected Cherokee Charter Academy three times, including twice last year and again for the 2012 – 2013 school year. The Academy in Canton opened with about 825 students last August after it received a state charter and state funding authorized by Governor Deal.
Funding is a relative term. State records indicate state, local and SPLOST funding amounts to $8,749 per pupil in the traditional Cherokee County public schools. This year Cherokee Charter Academy received $5,000 per pupil in average total funds from all sources. It does not receive local tax dollars or SPLOST capital expenditure funds.
A Cherokee County school board majority and Supt. Frank R. Petruzielo have repeatedly portrayed this issue as local, and say their concern is about the Cherokee schools.
Then last week the Cherokee board passed a resolution by a 4-2 vote that “requests that voters of the State of Georgia not support the Constitutional Amendment relative to charter schools.” Now it is about more than Cherokee County; now it is about stopping state charters everywhere.
Carrying the title “Resolution in Support of Quality Public Education,” the slightly longer than one page document is long on rhetoric about “an already underfunded public education system, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, shortened school calendars, insufficient textbooks and other curricular supplies and employee furloughs, with no end in sight” but it fails to recognize that all charter schools are public schools. Let’s try that once more for those who might be newcomers here: all charter schools are public schools.
The resolution is wrong and misleading when it tries to create the perception the state could “take and redirect local school tax dollars for the aforementioned purposes,” those purposes being to support state charter schools.
The constitutional amendment legislation stipulates only state dollars would be used to support state charter schools. No local tax dollars would be redirected to state charter schools. State funding to local school systems would not be reduced because any student leaves a traditional public school to enroll in a charter school. Therefore, the resolution is misleading and false.
So to recap: Cherokee Charter opened with 825 students last fall and it received about $5,000 per pupil in total funding from all sources. All local tax dollars and all SPLOST dollars for those students stayed with the Cherokee County public schools system. Somehow those two ideas did not make their way into the “Resolution in Support of Quality Public Education.”
Cherokee County is a destination location. It is a nice place to live. It has jobs. It has good real estate values. It has parks. It has a 74% high school graduation rate, less than 85% claimed by the school district but still better than the 67% statewide average. So, it has good schools. This year the district will spend $527 million to educate 38,766 students. The district has almost as much staff – 2,169 – as it does teachers – 2,343.
This August the traditional school district will expand its STEM and fine arts programs, which Cherokee County board member Michael Geist sees as a response to Cherokee Charter Academy. “I don’t know if I care too much why they did this. I’m just glad they did,” said Geist, who was elected to the traditional county board but has two children enrolled at Cherokee Charter Academy.
Geist voted against the constitutional “Quality Public Education” resolution. “It seems like every idea worth investing in gets shot down by the education lobby and the education establishment,” Geist said. “We don’t even get a chance to really find out if charter schools can work well.”
What a difference a year makes. Cherokee Charter Academy almost never happened. This fall the Academy will add eighth grade and enroll 1,000 students. The Academy was also selected to participate in a middle schools program offered by Cambridge University in England. This is a long way from not knowing whether your doors would open.
“We have learned the difference between a shock and an aftershock,” said board member Lyn Michaels-Carden. “A year ago the things that happened to us shocked and stunned us and sometimes we were distraught. Now because of everything we’ve been through it’s a lot easier to have perspective. You get to the point where you recognize what’s really important.”
Cherokee Charter seems like a perfect place to sign charter schools commission legislation.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said Friday that his office will open an investigation into how the Cherokee County School District responded to a citizen’s request for information.
The Georgia Open Records Act should give citizens a reasonable path to request information from their local governments, including school districts. But how open is open when a local school district tries to charge $324,608 for the information? That happened this week when Atlanta attorney Keith Meador sent a request to the Cherokee County School District.
On Monday June 20 Meador sent a request to Cherokee County School Superintendent Frank Petruzielo. Meador asked for documents including emails and other communications that pertain to the proposed Cherokee County Academy charter school. The request dates were not extensive; Meador asked for communications between May 16, 2011 and June 20.
Why does this matter to anyone? Cherokee Charter Academy is among 16 schools whose state Charter Schools Commission authorizations were overturned last month when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the commission is unconstitutional.
Like other affected charter schools, the Academy has gone back to its local school district to request a temporary one-year authorization. Update: In a Friday evening 4-3 vote, the Cherokee County Board of Education rejected the Academy application.
This was the Academy’s third attempt. Cherokee’s board rejected two earlier applications but that was before the November 2010 voting that elected some members who were considered more supportive of charters. Academy supporters have said the district encouraged teachers to oppose the charter school because it would threaten their jobs. Meador said his request was sent because “in my opinion, these issues don’t affect the current teachers.”
The state Open Records Act requires that local governments respond to requests within three days. The Act permits governments to recover costs for employee time and copying. Meador received his response on Thursday June 23.
The district told Meador it would need a $324,608 check to begin work and it would take 463 days to satisfy his information request. That would be the equivalent of seven employees working 110 eight-hour days each to recover information created over the May 16 – June 20 period. In total, the district said it would take 6,185 hours to recover the information.
Meador has filed hundreds of similar open record act requests in more than 20 states. “I have never in all my years gotten back that this is going to take hundreds of thousands of dollars and this will take a year and a half to get back to you, “ Meador said. “I’ve already requested that the Attorney General’s office look into this as a non-responsive response.”
On Friday afternoon, after he reviewed the request and the district response, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens told the Foundation, “Our office will open an investigation into this matter. The response causes concern.”
Meador’s request and district response were shown to Andrew Lewis, executive vice president at the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “These are the exact type of shenanigans that charter school founders must deal with when attempting to get a school authorized,” Lewis said. “It shows a clear need for having an authorizer other than local boards of education.”
Cherokee County Academy is trying to open as a brick-and-mortar school. This issue was discussed last week, on Monday June 16, when school officials would not permit a CBSAtlanta television reporter to enter a scheduled public board meeting. Some parents and teachers were also kept outside. Here is a link to the station’s coverage of the Monday June 16 meeting.
The state Board of Education will meet next Tuesday morning to consider state special school charter applications from any former commission school that still needs authorization to open in August. That is expected to include Cherokee now that the local school board has turned down its application for a third time.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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