DeKalb may become charter system

Credit: Johnny Crawford / AJC File

Credit: Johnny Crawford / AJC File

The DeKalb County School District may become the next big metro Atlanta system to give more autonomy to principals and parents, if the school board votes as expected next month to pursue charter system status.

Every Georgia district must decide by summer 2015 whether to maintain the status quo or to restructure and push more decisions from the central office to the schoolhouse.

DeKalb would join Fulton County in the charter system category. Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest district, chose a middle ground, becoming an “Investing in Educational Excellence” district and keeping more central control than a charter system.

Georgia is threatening to punish districts that reject change by actually enforcing some state mandates. Currently, DeKalb and many other systems are balancing their budgets by using waivers to extend class sizes beyond state maximums and to shrink their school calendars under the minimum 180 days.

DeKalb school board chairman Melvin Johnson said he will vote for charter status when the board meets May 5. He believes local control would encourage more parent engagement. “I think it will be a positive for the entire district,” he said.

Superintendent Michael Thurmond is recommending charter status instead of the status quo or the middle ground selected by Gwinnett. Among the benefits enumerated by his administration: keeping the waivers and encouraging innovation. But Thurmond says he would grant autonomy only to schools that demonstrate the capacity to lead, raising questions among some parents.

“We’re hoping to get more details about how that will happen,” said Maggie Anderson, a parent who serves on the governance council at Chamblee Charter High School. “We’re ready to do that.”

Andrew Lewis, executive vice president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said the state's charter system model does not offer as much autonomy as a regular startup charter school gets. Still, it's a shift in that direction, he said. "It's pushing some decision-making down to the school level."