Cobb school board votes to close charter school

Credit: Ty Tagami

Credit: Ty Tagami

More than a thousand students in Cobb County will have to find a new school next fall after the school board decided to close their charter school.

The International Academy of Smyrna’s academic results fell far below what was promised in its five-year charter that was approved by the school board in 2012.

After hearing an emotional appeal from parents to keep the school open, the board voted 6-1 not to renew the charter and to allow the students to enroll at any school in the district with space.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently and are held accountable for academic results, finances and governance.

The school underperformed both the district and state averages on the state report card, the College and Career Ready Performance Index. It has relatively high poverty, which correlates with lower performance, yet also underperformed most district schools with similar demographics.

The only reason for the existence of charter schools is to produce academic success for all students who attend, Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale told his school board members in a meeting Thursday prior to their evening vote.

“The growth was not there. The academic success was not there,” he said, adding that his staff spent months gathering and mulling data to reach the recommendation to close the school.

It slightly outperformed some nearby county schools, said Tony Waybright, a neighborhood and school advocate, who spoke at that earlier meeting, saying it’s been a “stabilizing factor” for the area so the board should keep it open.

But only the one board member, Susan Thayer, voted in favor of the school, for which she once worked as a consultant. Her husband previously served on the charter school’s board, as well. She disclosed these connections at the advice of the Cobb schools attorney, to avoid running afoul of conflict of interest requirements.

Thayer said in an interview earlier this week that she planned to support the school, which is in the area she represents, because her community does. “That’s what my community wants,” she said. She told the board Thursday that she believed the sharp decline in academic performance last year might have been recorded in error because it was so unusual. She said her instincts told her this was a school worth saving. "When I go into a school I can tell if it’s a good school,” she said.

This school, founded in 2006, has had two five-year contracts. The latest expires June 30. Parents described a familial atmosphere there, a place where the principal gives hugs and knows the children’s names.

“It’s like you’re breaking up a marriage,” parent Dawn Farris, voice wavering, told the board during a brief public comment period.

She asked the board members to vote with their hearts, but they chose to follow the data.

The school met four of the 21 goals in its charter.

“This isn’t a situation where I can say in good conscience ‘keep sending those babies to that school,’” said board member David Morgan, a charter school advocate who once ran a charter school.

The school also has financial issues: it has enough money to cover only a few days of operations; experts recommend a bankroll to cover at least a month. And it owes $5.6 million more than it has in assets, the district concluded, leaving it vulnerable to immediate closure in the event of a crisis.

School principal Kari Schrock accused the district of shorting the school $2.1 million over three years. With that money, it would have had a bigger financial cushion and might paid teachers enough to reduce its problem with turnover, she said, another problem cited by Cobb.

“Every issue raised today could have been avoided had we had proper funding,” Schrock said.

Cobb staff blamed the school itself, saying it produced inaccurate staffing reports for the state, which resulted in payments that were $700,000 lower than they should have been for three years in a row. Cobb depicted the school as uncooperative, skipping meetings and training sessions with the district and producing mandatory state reports at the last minute, with inaccuracies that could not be addressed because staff couldn’t get calls returned.

John Adams, the deputy superintendent for human resources, said his staff spent “hundreds” of hours researching the financial and other issues raised by the school’s leaders in their defense. He said the school was blaming the district for its own mistakes. “There’s been a human resources failure of the IAS leadership,” he said.

David Robinson, a former member of the board, consoled tearful people in the parking lot after the vote, which he described as “tragic.”

Yet he agrees with the decision because, he said, charter schools must be held accountable for their academic performance. He blames the school district for restricting access to funding, but he also blames the school itself.

Only a small core of parents were actively involved, with most shirking their volunteer responsibilities, he said, noting that fewer than one in 10 showed up for Thursday’s meeting. He said the school’s board, from which he resigned a few years ago, had not held the administration accountable and said the administrators were too inexperienced and too busy pointing fingers instead of leading.

“There was a lot of pontificating and a lot of excuses and not a lot of solutions,” Robinson said. “It was a perfect storm of incompetence, of apathy and of a lack of financial resources.”