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Ga. Charter School Cluster Petition Rejected by DeKalb School Board

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After a contentious, four-hour meeting Monday night, the DeKalb County School Board outside of Atlanta, Ga., rejected a petition that would have converted seven schools in the district into a charter school cluster.

The petition, which proceeded to the board after a 92 percent approval rate from a parent and faculty vote in August, was denied by a narrow margin with five board members opposing the petition and four supporting it. If it had passed, it would have been the first time that a conversion charter school cluster was created in the state following a 2005 law that allows groups of schools to apply for one charter.

The seven schools in question included five elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school and was dubbed the Druid Hills Charter Cluster. About 5,000 students and 400 faculty members would have been affected. The district would have authorized the charter, which would have been run by a nonprofit organization founded by representatives from the schools.

Following the vote, Matthew Lewis, a parent and school council member who led the petition effort said in a statement, "the board's decision is a chilling demonstration of the tyrannical insistence on mediocrity that plagues the DeKalb County public education system leading to underperforming schools that block progress in the vulnerable parts of our communities."

Increasing Innovation?

The charter cluster petition aimed to create several pathways from which students in the schools could choose, including an International Baccalaureate program; a science, technology, engineering, arts, and math focus;and Advanced Placement; and Montessori curricula. It would have also granted the schools in the charter cluster greater financial and operational autonomy from the 100,000-student DeKalb school district.

But during the school board meeting, some board members expressed skepticism about how innovative the cluster would be, saying that the school district already has IB, AP, and STEAM-focused courses available to students.

Also at issue was the project's $11 million price tag. That's what school board members who opposed the cluster and DeKalb schools staff members, including Superintendent Michael Thurmond, said it would cost the district to convert the schools to charters. That number, said charter cluster supporter Kelly Cadman, the vice president of school services for the Georgia Charter Schools Association, points to the gap between the level of funding the seven schools currently receive from the district ($29 million) versus the level of funding they generate ($40 million.) The petitioners asked for the full $40 million to operate the charter cluster—an $11 million increase in their current funding.

Although the petition had overwhelming community support as determined by the August 12 vote, critics of the cluster raised questions about the legitimacy of the vote. In particular, a political science professor at Georgia State University and a parent of students in the district wrote an op-ed calling the election both unfair and illegal. Those running the election were wearing pro-cluster T-shirts, and the four-hour voting block (4 p.m.-8 p.m.) made it "effectively impossible" for working families using public transit to make it to the election site in time for the vote, he said.

There is no appeals process following the school board vote, although those working for the charter school cluster petition could reach out to the state for mediation.

Representatives from DeKalb County public schools and the DeKalb school board could not be reached for comment at the time of this post.

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