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Charter schools elude Clayton

By Greg Gelpi

Clayton County parents won't have a new alternative to public school education anytime soon.

The Clayton County Board of Education rejected an application to establish a charter school in the county.

Patricia Lewis, who submitted the application, doesn't understand why the local board rejected the concept since the state found only minor problems with the application.

With the Clayton County Public School system on probation, Lewis is trying to provide an alternative. She presented her charter school application to the state Department of Education for review.

"Nowhere did they say that it did not meet state guidelines," Lewis said. "The only parents going to a charter school are the ones who think a charter school will do a better job. I've had a number of parents say they put their kids in private schools even though they can't afford it. I've had a number of parents say they're moving out of the county."

A charter school review committee of the school system contended, though, that the application failed to meet state guidelines. The committee is made up of about 15 representatives from various departments throughout the system.

Jennifer Rippner, the program manager for charter schools for the state Department of Education, said the department doesn't issue opinions on applications, but that the application had only "little things" wrong with it.

"It's all technicalities," she said, adding that the application didn't have a cover letter or executive summary among other required items.

The state offered suggestions for the application, but Lewis never returned to the Department of Education, Rippner said, so she was not sure if Lewis took the department's suggestions.

Lewis submitted the application to the board Nov. 5 and asked the state to review the application Nov. 21, Rippner said.

Sam King, the assistant superintendent for support services and continuous improvement, spoke for the committee to the board. He said that the committee did not recommend approving the application, and the board unanimously approved his recommendation.

"The committee found that the petition does not meet the minimum requirements of state law governing the contents of charter school petitions," according to a committee document.

The committee found nine areas of concern with Lewis' application. Among these concerns were inadequate information on how the charter school would perform better than the public school system and how it will measure that performance.

Lewis was at a funeral and her attorney, who helped prepare the application, was in the hospital when the board considered the application. She was notified of the meeting the night before the meeting, she said.

"I didn't think it was fair for them to call me and only give me a few hours," Lewis said. "They are obviously not doing anything to help to have charter schools in Clayton County. I intend to have a charter school in Clayton County."

She said that there is a power struggle between the board and those wanting to establish a charter school.

"It's not a good idea to have a local school district in charge of charter schools. There is a lot of animosity," Lewis said.

Charter schools are independent schools within a school system that are run by private groups, but overseen by the school system. Charters are granted to schools whose application is approved. In the charter, the school states how it will improve on public education and how it will measure this success.

With the rejection at the local level, Lewis can now seek mediation or apply to the state Department of Education for a state charter, Rippner said.

There have been 62 charter schools opened in Georgia since the state passed legislation allowing for charter schools in 1993. There are no charter schools in Clayton County.