Schools seeking flexibility may have to be more open

Georgia school districts seeking freedom from state education mandates may soon have to give parents more say about their plans.

The Georgia Board of Education this week will consider an amendment that will make a controversial policy affording school districts the flexibility to opt out of state laws on class size, teacher pay and student transfers, among other things, more parent-friendly.

State administrators concerned about complaints of parents being left out of the decision-making process are recommending that Georgia districts seeking IE2 flexibility contracts with the Department of Education go to great lengths to be transparent.

The policy review comes less than two weeks after the only districts in the state with flexibility contracts were scrutinized by the Georgia NAACP for failing to hold public hearings informing parents about their intent to amend their contracts so they could opt out of the new school choice law.

Neither Gwinnett nor Forsyth county public schools, which already have transfer policies, sought public input before asking for state waivers from HB 251.

"This isn't a reaction to say that anyone did anything wrong," said Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Department of Education. "We put this rule in place and had the first two districts go through the process. You learn from that."

The IE2 flexibility policy now requires only one public hearing seeking comment on a new contract proposal. The amendment would establish additional communication guidelines.

Local districts would be required to notify parents of the intent to apply for flexibility before talks begin with the state, and to seek community input during the contract negotiation stage and afterward if there are appeals to waive additional laws and alter approved contracts.

"When we are talking about flexibility within a school system. ... we are concerned about all the parties that a school is accountable to, not just the state, but the parents and the students," state Board of Education chairwoman Wanda Barrs, who heads the rules committee, said earlier.

Tofig lauded Gwinnett and Forsyth as "vanguards" for testing the state's flexibility policy, which is expected to attract interest from across Georgia. Both districts posted their flexibility application proposals on Web sites last school year so parents could see them before the state approved them.

Gwinnett, the first seeking flexibility, however, was criticized by parents and teachers for failing to bring them into the loop before the draft was prepared, posted and initially shared with the state for feedback.

Forsyth schools held forums and focus groups with teachers and parents before drafting its proposal.

"Not everyone will always agree with every decision that is made, but by communicating and working to establish dialogue with the community in a way that honors each other, we believe we are showing the respect that our community deserves," said Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Buster Evans.

Gwinnett schools officials did not comment.