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System eyes magnet schools

By Greg Gelpi

Swelling numbers and school choice are pushing Clayton County school officials to "think outside the box."

Magnet schools could be the answer to the school system's continually growing student population and demand placed on particular schools because of school choice, Clayton County schools Superintendent Barbara Pulliam said.

Pulliam, and a contingent of school officials, attended a symposium in Arizona last week to learn more about offering choices to the county's parents. No Child Left Behind has allowed parents at poorly performing schools to send their children to better performing schools, causing some schools to strain from the influx of students. Magnet schools, though, would provide a "real" choice.

The magnet schools being considered aren't necessarily the traditional magnet schools, Pulliam said. The magnet schools could be "schools within schools" or schools differentiated by things such as having school uniforms.

A Spanish emergence school would also be possible in a magnet school system, she said, as well as special emphasis areas, such as math, science or other academic areas.

"All the children should have the opportunity to have the very best we have to offer," Pulliam said.

Pulliam is assembling a task force to study options for providing and addressing issues of school choice to provide parents a "real choice."

As it is, the school system will be opening schools and rearranging school boundary lines every year for the next five years.

Some parents had expressed frustration when the school system rearranged school boundaries to accommodate the opening of two new schools this year, Pulliam said. Parents choose where they live based on particular schools and shouldn't be required to change schools if their children are happy there.

The school system has been "reacting" to the growing population when it should be "proactive," Pulliam said.

A magnet system would prompt the school system's transportation department to rethink the way it operates as well.

Clayton County schools Director of Facility Auxiliary Services Brian Miller said the system might consider entering into an agreement with Clayton County so that some students could ride C-TRAN buses with tokens provided by the school system.

Pulliam acknowledged that school choice has already caused "headaches" for transportation officials and that the idea of magnet schools could create more difficulty.

Pulliam also pitched a proposal for a new bid process to the school board's facilities committee.

Cheaper isn't always better, and the proposal allows the school board to accept bids that aren't the low bids for construction and other projects, Pulliam said.

The traditional model of bidding, the model the system currently uses, consists of designing, bidding and building. The new bid process would draw from a "mandatory pre-qualification" list of contractors, but would not hold the school system to accepting the low bid.

The process would provide more flexibility to consider such things as the number of subcontractors employed from within the county.

"I want to see us spend as much money as we can in Clayton County," Pulliam said, adding that it's wise to "spend money, where we make money."

She called it Economics 101 and said it helps to keep the county and school system financially "healthy."

Albert E. Phillips, a lawyer who specializes in construction, was hired by the school system to study the bidding issue.

According to Phillips, in "many instances" the low bidders are "most likely" to default on contracts. In the current process, it's "not politically viable" not to accept the low bid, but the proposed new process would "weed out" low bids.

"It gives us an opportunity to look at things other than price," he said. "The bottom line is that you don't have to choose the cheapest contractor."

He added, though, that "price will certainly" be one factor in choosing a contractor from the pool of preapproved contractors.

Board member Ericka Davis expressed "initial concern" that the school board would have no input into the criteria to determine which contractors are accepted into the pool of prequalified contractors.

Pulliam, though, said board members don't have that level of input with the existing bid process.

"That doesn't mean that you can't start doing that," Pulliam said. "I just want you to understand what you're opening the door for."

The school system's newest Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax will fund the construction of six new schools during the next five years, and Pulliam wants a new bid process for the new tax.

The school board will consider approving the new bid process at its next regular business meeting, which is scheduled for Dec. 6.