Parents in Cherokee get good news on charter school

Cherokee County parents, who have been turned down three times in their effort to start a charter school, got their first good news after years of trying.

A committee of the state Charter Schools Commission recommended late Monday that the school be approved, which will override the local denial by the Cherokee County Board of Education. The full commission will vote on the recommendation Thursday.

"We are expecting a school; we are hoping for a school; we expect the process to go fairly easily," said Lyn Carden, a member of the Georgia Charter Educational Foundation Board, which is made up of those supporting the charter school application.

Carden and others have campaigned hard to get a charter school started, but the board of education has turned them down twice and the state commission once. After their second denial by the board of education last June, foundation members applied again to the state Charter Schools Commission, which state legislators created because they believed school systems would be too likely to deny applications.

Charter schools are public schools open to any student at no additional cost, which are started by parents, nonprofits or a local school district. They may be approved by the local district, which entitles the school to get county school funds and gives the local school board limited oversight. If they are rejected by the local school district and later approved by the state commission, they receive state and federal funds plus a matching share of local tax dollars for the school, and the local school board loses it oversight.

Charter schools have flexibility to try new, distinctive programs and are not subject to many educational regulations. They are held to higher standards than public schools and their charters can be pulled if they fail to deliver.

The proposed charter school has a strong character-education and community service component. It would be open next fall from kindergarten to 7th grade for about 700 students in the Holly Springs area. The local foundation is working with a for-profit Florida firm to start and operate the school.

Carden has a child in Cherokee County schools kindergarten and said she wanted to see more options for education.

The county board denied the application, saying the foundation failed to propose distinct instructional models, and noted other shortcomings such as an insufficient plan for transporting special needs students and low estimates for renting a facility and providing support services.

Danny Dukes, another foundation member, said they have learned from past rejections and strengthened their application to ready it for the state commission. He was at the foundation's presentation to the state commission last October and felt optimistic it would be approved.

"I am hoping for a positive outcome on December 16," he said.

Mike McGowan, the spokesman for Cherokee County Schools, said he did not expect a representative would attend Thursday's final vote.

"We sent them a copy of our analysis of the petition along with corresponding information saying the board had unanimously denied it," he said.

Even if approved, there is one final barrier. A lawsuit by seven school systems — Atlanta, DeKalb, Candler, Coweta, Bulloch, Gwinnett and Griffin-Spalding — claim the state law that created the Charter Schools Commission is unconstitutional. They lost in Fulton Superior Court and appealed to the state Supreme Court, which could decide before the end of the year.