By Melissa Weinman and Joe Earle
Some north DeKalb parents and officials believe the DeKalb County Board of Education’s recent vote to deny a “charter cluster” application for Druid Hills sent a message that the embattled school board isn’t open to new ideas.
Proponents of independent school systems in north DeKalb say the school board’s decision will bolster efforts to start new school systems.
“The school board has a one-size-fits-all [philosophy],” said Dunwoody City Councilman Terry Nall, who has advocated for a separate Dunwoody school system. “They’re not willing to recognize the unique needs of local communities. It highlights our need for control.”
On Nov. 11, the DeKalb school board voted 5-4 against the Druid Hills petition.
A “charter cluster” is a concept that takes a cluster of schools – a high school and all of the elementary and middle schools that feed into it – and puts it under the control of a governing board separate from the school system.
The idea is that the charter cluster would have more autonomy and flexibility in exchange for more accountability and improvements in academic performance.
Marshall Orson, a board of education representative whose district includes Brookhaven, was one of the four members who voted in favor of the Druid Hills petition. Orson said the Druid Hills Charter Cluster petition was the first of its kind to come before the DeKalb school board and had it been approved, it would have been the first charter cluster in the state.
“I think we’re going to have to wrestle with this issue. I don’t think this is the last petition. I think it’s only the first.”
But Brookhaven City Councilman Bates Mattison said the board’s decision also may discourage parents from submitting charter cluster applications in the future. Mattison said he looked into creating a charter cluster for Chamblee High School and a lot of time, effort and money goes into preparing the charter petitions.
“It took what was a group of active parents and educators who want to improve the school system and told them, ‘We’re not interested in having you participate,’” Mattison said. “In the bigger picture, it says to people like me or in Dunwoody, maybe it’s not worth the effort.”
Meanwhile, a study of the feasibility of creating a separate Dunwoody school system found the system would raise twice as much at current tax levels as it would need to operate. The study, commissioned by Dunwoody Parents Concerned about Quality Education and paid for by the Dunwoody City Council, projected revenues for Dunwoody school system at $78.7 million, based on 2012 levels, and projected operating costs of about $37.8 million.
“Such organization reform may be not only financially prudent, but would facilitate the classroom-centered and child-centered operations without the organization encumbrances of a district organized to serve 98,000 children,” said the study, which was conducted by Georgia Tech professor Christine P. Ris and Georgia Public Policy Foundation president Kelly McCutchen.
The study also found that DeKalb County schools stood to lose about $27 million of consolidated revenues if an independent Dunwoody school system should be created.
Orson, who was a strong supporter of the Druid Hills effort, said he sees charter clusters as a good model for improving education. “They strike a good balance for autonomy for areas with the capacity and interest while maintaining the overall school system,” Orson said.
Orson said he doesn’t think it’s fair to label the school board as inflexible or unwilling to consider new ideas as some might suggest. “I hate to draw a conclusion from any single vote,” Orson said. “This is a new board.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Nathan Deal removed six of the nine school board members after the DeKalb school system was placed on accreditation probation. Orson and two other members had recently been elected and were allowed to retain their seats. On Nov. 25, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the law allowing Deal to remove the board members.
Orson said he thinks it’s likely the state may try to narrow the board’s discretion when it comes to charter petitions. For that reason, Orson would like to see the board consider more alternative ideas.
“Are we better off embracing it so we’re still party to it or having the state make a decision for us?” Orson said. “To maintain our relevance, we’re ultimately going to have to be part of the process … or someone else is going to do it for us.”
Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, believes denial of the Druid Hills petition will fuel support for his bill allowing the creation of independent school systems. His bill would allow cities created since 2005 to start new school systems.
Taylor said the school board’s recent actions prove that there is a need to create different avenues to improve public education. “This is our only alternative,” Taylor said.
He believes the denial will help his cause in the legislature. “A lot of the pushback I was getting last year, in the one hearing we had, was, ‘Why don’t you do a charter cluster?’ Now I can tell you why,” Taylor said.
Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said he has asked legislative counsel to explore adding an appeals process to the current state law on charter clusters for applications that are denied by local school boards.
Millar said his interest in changing the law was influenced by the DeKalb school board’s vote to turn down the Druid Hills application.
“I was disappointed. I think it was a chance to really be innovative instead of the same ole same ole,” Millar said.
In Brookhaven, Mattison said improving public education is too important for parents to give up.
“People like me are not going to stop just because the DeKalb Board of Education said no to one group,” Mattison said. “The question is, which option is going to be the most achievable and doable?”