Charter school cluster should be denied, administration says

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A renewed proposal to convert a cluster of public schools to private management is garnering the same negative assessment from DeKalb County school administrators that it got the first time around.

Superintendent Michael Thurmond is recommending that his school board again deny a request by a group of parents and educators who want to create a “charter cluster” using existing public schools in and around one of the wealthiest parts of the county.

The school board voted 5-4 to deny an earlier petition by the group, which sought to place Druid Hills High School and six feeder schools under under a private nonprofit organization with its own board of directors. Approval would have put about 5,000 students in the hands of a governing board whose members were not elected by voters in the way a regular school board is.

The proposal was a hot-button issue in the recent school board election, and the outcome for three incumbents — one won; two lost — was consistent with their votes on the petition and sentiments in the areas they represent. One incumbent in north DeKalb who voted against the petition was rejected by voters. Another in south DeKalb who voted the same way was spared. A third, also in south DeKalb, who voted for the cluster, lost the election.

The charter cluster concept has been greeted with enthusiasm in north DeKalb, where there is a history of frustration with the management of the district. But it has created suspicion in the county’s south side, where poverty is higher and there is a fear that the wealthier parts of the county want to peel away into such clusters, leaving only the poorest sections under the district administration. Proponents of the Druid Hills cluster note, though, that a majority of their schools have high poverty and other challenges, such as immigrant populations.

Before the school board’s November denial, DeKalb officials determined that a Druid Hills Charter Cluster would drain millions of dollars from district coffers, at the expense of the rest of DeKalb’s roughly 100,000 students, an assertion the petitioners disputed.

A letter from Thurmond to his school board Friday said the new petition was essentially the same as the old one. A review committee “determined that these items lacked substantive modification or edits from the original petition’s responses,” the letter said. It also said the new petition “has not remedied the deficiencies” outlined in a letter from the school board after that first denial vote.

Matt Lewis, the chairman of the charter cluster board, said he hadn’t received a copy of the letter and couldn’t comment on it. However, Lewis disagreed with the review committee’s assessment.

“We believe that our refiled petition responds specifically to each point made” by the district, he said.

It’s unclear what happens next. Georgia law establishes a process for original petitions but is more ambiguous about resubmitted petitions, though it clearly allows for them. The DeKalb school board meets Monday, but as of Friday the charter cluster petition was not on its agenda.