City wants school, tries tactic kindergartners learn: promise to share

Georgia law says new cities can’t have their own schools, but the new City of Brookhaven may have found a way around that.

Leaders of the 3-year-old municipality are again petitioning the State Charter Schools Commission to let them open a school. After a similar petition was denied last year, they came back with a revised proposal to be delivered Monday that they say has addressed many of the state’s concerns.

“We feel like we’ve gotten all their issues addressed, and we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Brookhaven City Councilman Bates Mattison, a member of the proposed school’s governing board.

One change scaled back the city’s control of the school by reducing city representation on its board. Another expanded the attendance zone.

Advocates downplay the political nature of their proposal, preferring to talk about how the tech-oriented curriculum would benefit students. Yet some some also talk freely about problems with the existing DeKalb County system.

When former Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis, a founding member of the proposed school’s board, recently ran unsuccessfully for the state House, he stressed “the problems caused by the bloated educational bureaucracy.”

DeKalb’s new superintendent, Steve Green, defended the performance of his schools in that part of the county, saying they “are doing a phenomenal job.”

But Mayor Mike Davis of the city next door, Dunwoody, said that if Brookhaven gets its charter school, he could see the concept spreading to his city and beyond. Davis said residents are fed up with low graduation rates, low test scores and what they see as ineffective administrators: “The DeKalb County school system is not working, so our attitude is something has to change. We will do anything we have to do to solve this problem.”

Charter schools are the Dunwoody leader’s plan B, however. Davis’ first preference is to turn back the clock on Georgia school law. A ban on new school districts was added to the state constitution after World War II, leading to mostly county-operated districts. Only some old independent city districts — Atlanta, Buford, Decatur and Marietta — endured in what would become the metro area. DeKalb later folded 15 autonomous districts into one.

For decades, this economy of scale produced suburban districts with reputations as big as their swelling enrollments. But now, dissatisfaction with schools, public safety and other local services is driving voters to carve new cities out of old counties, starting in Fulton County a decade ago and spreading to DeKalb.

Dunwoody’s mayor said he’s met city leaders in other big metro counties, including Georgia’s largest, Gwinnett, who are considering amending the constitution so they, too, can have their own schools. “Twenty five years ago, DeKalb was the best county school system in the state, and I think Gwinnett realizes they’re just one administrative change from slipping down the same hole that DeKalb slipped down,” he said.

A constitutional amendment is a long shot, though, which makes Brookhaven’s strategy even more attractive.

The city development authority may soon spend $2.8 million to acquire an old elementary school on Skyland Drive for what is being called the Brookhaven Innovation Academy.

“One of the benefits we bring to the equation as city representatives is money,” city councilman Joe Gebbia said at a recent charter commission hearing.

A big concern the commission had about the first petition was the attendance zone.

Charter schools get public money and cannot pick who attends. If they are oversubscribed, they must winnow applicants with a lottery. Because Brookhaven is seeking a charter from the state commission, it must allow applicants from across Georgia.

The original proposal limited physical attendance to city residents, and added an online program for everyone else. The physical attendance zone in the new petition is technically statewide.

Another big sticking point was the city’s control of the governing board, which in the initial petition comprised five members — all city officials. With the city’s financial commitment, there were worries they might be predisposed to enroll more city residents.

Though charter schools cannot pick their students, they can influence who applies through techniques such as targeted advertising.

Brookhaven responded by expanding the board and adding people who are not city officials nor even Brookhaven residents. The board has expanded to 10 members and three of the five positions for city officials were cut, including the mayor’s. Mattison said the board can grow by up to six more members and they plan to add one from the Latin American Association.

Among the outsiders already added is Kim Gokce, founder of the Cross Keys Foundation, which advocates for students at DeKalb’s Cross Keys High School and nearby schools. Hispanics are a big part of enrollment, and he pledged to ensure they have access to the new school.

Green, the DeKalb superintendent, questioned whether the proposed charter would serve a “special interest,” meaning just Brookhaven.

Mattison countered that the only special interest the school would target is high-poverty Hispanic and Asian students in and around the city. He wants to expose them to a “blended” curriculum, tailored for each student by computer and teacher, plus team-based, multidisciplinary projects. It will be tech oriented, and even kindergartners will learn to program computers, he said.

Enrollment from beyond the city might not be an issue for long if the charter is approved when the commission meets Aug. 26, since nearby governments might follow Brookhaven’s lead.

To the east, Doraville could do something like it at the defunct General Motors plant, which is slated for redevelopment. “It’s a win-win for all of us in Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville, and the developers are interested in it too,” said Dawn O’Connor, a councilwoman there who is concerned about the county’s problems with dropouts, test scores and school crowding. “What we have now is not working,” she said. “We have got to do better.”

To the south and east, Mary Kay Woodworth is leading an effort to establish another new city, LaVista Hills, which was motivated in part by faltering county schools. If residents vote to create the city on Nov. 3, she said, she could see future residents supporting a constitutional amendment for city schools or, failing that, a charter concept like Brookhaven’s.

“I think you will see more cities looking at this as a model,” she said. “Why wouldn’t a city look at it if they don’t have control of the schools?”

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