Druid Hills parents may use charter law to gain control over school cluster

Parents from Druid Hills High School and the middle and five elementary schools that feed it are moving to activate a state law that allows a buffer between school “clusters” and district leadership.

The parents, responding to the recent DeKalb County school board crisis, are the first in Georgia to file notice of plans to use the three-year-old high school charter cluster law, which lets parents and school employees create a governance board buffering them from the local school board and superintendent.

Matthew Lewis, a Druid Hills High parent and an organizer of the group, said the “continual focus” on the drama around the DeKalb school board and a threatened loss of accreditation led parents to file a notice of intent Feb. 4.

Hundreds of volunteers — parents, teachers and administrators — are laying the groundwork for a petition to be filed by Aug. 16, with hopes of converting to charter status by August 2014, he said.

Druid Hills may be at the forefront of a trend in a county frustrated by bad news about local education. The DeKalb County School District ran a financial deficit last year and is at risk of losing accreditation over governance complaints. Gov. Nathan Deal last month suspended two-thirds of the school board and appointed new members two weeks ago.

Parents around Dunwoody and Lakeside high schools also have been talking about carving clusters for themselves.

“We’re looking to have more of a say about what happens in our schools and to have more money go to our children,” said Kim Speece, a parent helping to coordinate a similar charter effort for Lakeside High. A handful of parents there started talking about it last month and have approached all eight feeder schools, but are well behind the Druid Hills effort.

The parents are empowered by a 2010 law that allows schools autonomy if they commit to improved performance. It was aimed at larger, mainly urban school districts, since many rural systems have only one high school. DeKalb is Georgia’s third largest system, with 21 high schools and 99,000 students.

“It allows for decisions about education to be made closer to the student,” said Dan Weber, a former state senator who co-sponsored the law. “They know what their needs are, and the needs vary dramatically across a county as large as DeKalb.”

The proposal for the Druid Hills cluster would make an International Baccalaureate program the centerpiece of the high school and at Druid Hills Middle. Five elementary schools are included: Avondale, Briar Vista, Fernbank, Laurel Ridge and McClendon.

Officials with the Georgia Department of Education said this is the first time anyone has filed a notice of intent to petition for a charter cluster. Morgan Felts, an attorney in the charter schools division, said the approval process should take three to six months after the petition is filed. It starts with the local school board and ends with the state Board of Education. There is no appeal if the local board rejects the request.

The parents and staff at the affected schools must write a charter, then hold a vote with at least 60 percent approval. It’s up to those affected to determine how much autonomy they want. The cluster, which would not get any additional taxpayer money, can manage some services on its own while looking to the district for others, such as busing, food service and human resources administration.

“A lot of that decision is going to be made at the local level,” Felts said. “There is no one way that it has to be structured.”

Nancy Jester, a suspended DeKalb school board member, is a charter advocate and frequent critic of county school operations. She said the strength of an independent cluster will depend upon the autonomy gained from the school system over crucial matters such as personnel.

If the charter allows ongoing system control over hiring, firing, pay and promotions, the parents will have ceded too much power and control, Jester said. “It’s a big deal if it can be done with autonomy.”

Eugene Walker, another suspended board member, is a charter critic. He’s from south DeKalb, and the talk of charter clusters is mostly coming from the northern, wealthier half of the county. He sees the concept as an assault on public education.

“We know people have the means to create these elitist situations, and that’s what a lot of these charter schools are trying to become,” Walker said. “People want to separate instead of integrate.”

Weber said charter advocates could blunt such criticism by including members of the school district administration and school board on their cluster governance boards. Wealthier areas also could return some of their money to the system to be used in poorer areas, he said.

“I think there would be an upwelling of enthusiasm for public education,” Weber said. “It’s not about being separate and independent from DeKalb. It’s about a partnership that brings the community together.”

The new school board named by Deal could temper some of the enthusiasm for charter clusters.

Speece, who is working on the Lakeside High cluster movement, said talk about it has quieted since Deal appointed the new board. If the new district leadership can reduce financial waste and steer more money to teachers, she said, interest in clusters, at least at Lakeside, might disappear.

“I’d like to give them a chance to see what they can do,” Speece said. “A decision has not been made as to which way Lakeside will go.”

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