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Cobb schools have a new wish for lawmakers: Leave us alone

Most of the big metro Atlanta school districts send lobbyists to the Gold Dome, and the Cobb County School District just picked the wish list its messengers will carry to lawmakers when they meet next year. It contains the standard priorities, with a notable exception.

Cobb lists the traditional concerns about money and academic accountability, but this time, in what some might read as a rebuke, the state’s second largest school district is sending this message to lawmakers: leave us alone!

“Who knows how to help Cobb students succeed better than their parents, teachers and principals,” says a statement released after the school board approved its legislative priorities Thursday. The statement touts above average scores on college admissions tests and a roster of award-winning schools, and adds: “That’s why ensuring local control of schools is Cobb’s first legislative priority.”

The last time those two words − local control  − were wielded by school boards was in 2016, during the bitter fight over a constitutional amendment to let the state take over “chronically failing” schools. The amendment, backed by Gov. Nathan Deal, was rejected by voters after a loud campaign, with school boards, including those dominated by Deal’s Republican party, on the front lines.

So some might read Cobb’s latest message as a salvo, a broadside even,  at an ongoing Senate study commission that is considering whether Georgia needs a uniform attendance calendar. Currently, the 180 school districts design their own calendars, creating a jumble of start and end dates that accommodate local needs but frustrate the tourism industry. The industry pushed for the Senate study commission and has several representatives on the panel.

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Cobb’s plea for local control touches on another hot button issue: testing. Lawmakers and the federal government approved the concept of pilot programs allowing schools to experiment with alternatives to state standardized tests. Cobb is part of a consortium with a proposal that has been approved at the state level and will soon be pitched to Washington. But the district also has a divisive past with calendar experiments, a chapter in the county’s history that some might prefer to keep closed.

“Whether it is giving Cobb the flexibility to test a new assessment system that has the potential to benefit all students in Georgia or allowing local communities, like Cobb, to approve school calendars that best serve the needs of their students and staff, local control is a must,” Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale is quoted as saying in the district’s news release.

The tourism industry complains that the shrinkage of summer break in many districts has led to asynchrony with nearby states: tourists are still visiting Georgia after students have returned to school, depriving destinations of part-time workers to service the visitors. Also, neighboring counties may have competing calendars that complicate schedules for parents and businesses.

Opponents of a statewide calendar say school districts must be allowed to accommodate local needs, including the use of interim breaks during the school year to relieve teacher stress. Time for those short breaks is recovered from the summer by starting school before Labor Day, as early as late July. The local control argument used by Cobb and others is that they know what their schools need better than lawmakers in Atlanta.

It’s unclear what kind of proposal, if any, the Senate panel will develop. The legislation that established the 11-member study committee gave a Dec. 1 deadline to report findings — a month ahead of the 2019 legislative session. The committee chairman, Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said at the last meeting Wednesday that he wants to hold one more meeting, as yet unscheduled, somewhere besides the Capitol, perhaps at a tourism destination.

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