In a 4-3 vote Friday met with a standing ovation, the Cherokee school board rejected Cherokee Charter Academy, one of eight new charters statewide whose futures were thrown into limbo by the state Supreme Court decision on May 16.
Like most of the other charter schools scheduled to open and the eight already in operation, Cherokee Charter turned to its local school board for approval, which was the best lifeline since it assured the best funding. But many things were at work against the fledgling school, one being the short time frame for local approval due to the late ruling by the Supreme Court.
By issuing its decision in mid May after hearing the case in October, the high court left a window of only a few weeks for schools approved by the now illegal state commission to find legitimacy through local boards of education. I think that the schools already in operation had a slight edge over schools like Cherokee Academy, which had not yet opened and had no record on which to stand.
What is interesting to note in both Cherokee and Coweta — which also rejected one of the 16 commission charters Friday and one that is actually in operation -- is that these are communities with high achieving schools, creating tensions between the charter parents who want a different setting for their kids and the parents who are satisfied with their existing public school choices and see the charter schools as a financial drain on already strained resources.
In Cherokee, each group of parents showed up in their colors — red for charter school supports and black for opponents.
Most of the charter school students stranded by the Supreme Court decision — two-thirds of them — would have attended virtual charter schools, which are among the fastest-growing in the nation. Down the line, I have to spend time looking at the research on the efficacy of virtual education. From what I have seen so far, the efficacy falls into that standard big pot in education called “mixed results.” But online charter schools are growing everywhere, and it will be interesting to see how well they fare.)
The idea of a charter school in Cherokee County was met with over 2,600 applications and a groundswell of support from parents concerned about slipping test scores at their neighborhood schools. The overwhelming interest grew the charter school’s rosters from over 700 students to 995. The school, which was set to open in August, could never win board approval, however. It was rejected in 2009 and 2010 because of concerns about its finances, governance and budget.
Parents were disappointed by the third rejection, but refuse to give up. “We will continue to fight,” said Ted Handey, who has a fifth grader accepted at Cherokee Charter Academy. Organizers say they will appeal to the state Board of Education for approval as a state special charter school. That vote will be held Tuesday.
School board members said the charter school wasn’t right for the district and the price was too high with 995 students. To raise $3.4 million for a school of 500 — the board’s counter proposal — Cherokee school superintendent Frank Petruzielo said the board would have to consider either laying off 55 teachers, increasing furlough days, eliminating step raises, hiking taxes or siphoning reserves. If the charter was allowed to continue with 995 students, it would be a $6.8 million impact; or $40 million over five years.
“We are not talking about small change,” Petruzielo said.
Board members Mike Chapman, Janet Read, Robert Wofford and Rick Steiner voted against the charter petition. Board members Michael Geist, Kim Cochran and Rob Usher voted in favor.
“What I hate the most about this situation is that we should not be pitting one against the other,” said school board member Chapman before the vote. He also told those who wanted more choices to consider relocating. “If you feel like the Cherokee County school system isn’t meeting your needs you have the option to move.”
School officials also said the charter school’s application had continued deficiencies and question whether the charter school was giving too much control to its partner, Charter Schools USA, a for-profit education management firm. Some also wondered whether enough students had the opportunity to apply.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog