Fulton County Schools considers hiring outside firm to manage district’s alternative schools

Fulton County Schools is considering bids from private companies to run its alternative school programs for students who have been expelled, or are on long-term suspension, a step that two other metro Atlanta districts have made.

The move could save the district money, said Cobb and Marietta schools administrators whose districts contract with Nashville-based Ombudsman Educational Services, a company that manages alternative school programs in 23 districts in Georgia.

Fulton’s decision to privatize its alternative schools has spurred speculation the district is making a move that could lead to staff reductions. Administrators in Cobb County and Marietta Schools said their districts did save money, but didn’t shrink staff.

Marietta saved about $300,000 in the first year of its contract with Ombudsman compared to what it cost to run the district’s Crossroads Alternative Education program, said Marietta Schools Administrative Assistant for Operations, Preston Howard. But the district didn’t lay off any staff, he said. It reassigned educators to new jobs.

The district pays Ombudsman about $280,000 a year to operate the school, Ombudsman Roswell Center, which the company owns and staffs, said Howard. The cost savings are in the efficiency of the facility, which uses computer-assisted teaching on site.

The facility can handle 45 students a day and operates in three shifts: There are two, three-hour sessions for high school students, and one four-hour session for middle school students.

Howard said the company delivers results equivalent to the district’s former Crossroads school. Students get back on tract academically and behaviorally to return to regular school — typically after one semester at the alternative school, sometimes two — so students graduate on time.

“I would hesitate to say they do a better job than the district school — but they provide the same service at a reduced cost,” said Howard.

Cobb County Schools director of Alternative Education, U.S. Davidson Jr., said the district saves about $2,000 a year on each high school student in the Ombudsman program compared to what it cost when the district operated its alternative schools. Ombudsman operates four alternative schools in the district that have a capacity for about 285 students, said Davidson.

He said the district has been satisfied with the results. “I think we have less issues than we did with our previous program,” said Davidson. “The Ombudsman program is more structured, there is less opportunity for the students to get into trouble.”

Fulton superintendent Robert Avossa said the winning bidder will replace or manage the alternative programs now on two campuses: Crossroads/Second Chance North school, in Roswell which has 21 middle school and 23 high school students, and Crossroads/Second Chance South school, in Union City, which has 46 middle school and 58 high school students.

Avossa said the decision is not driven by money: “It is being driven by what kids need. We don’t have enough options right now for short-term and long-term suspensions, and we want to explore those options.” Outsourcing, for instance, could enable the district to deal with students with different discipline problems in different settings.

A student who got in a fight at school would not be in the same program as a student who brought a weapon to school, said Avossa. “Parents and teachers have shared their concerns about not having enough options,” said the superintendent. “When kids are suspended and on the street they get in trouble and their academics suffer.”