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State approval of charter schools wins support

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

The Henry County Board of Education, and other school boards around the state, are pondering whether to appeal a recent court ruling declaring that charter schools -- sanctioned by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission -- are constitutional.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob has told school boards that, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, acting as an entity created in 2008 to assist the State Board of Education in overseeing, and approving charter school application appeals, is doing what it was established to do.

Judge Shoob's ruling came while she was hearing a case which pitted the Gwinnett County Public School System against the state. Other, similar cases, in which the constitutionality of the charter schools commission was challenged, including the one involving the Henry County School System, were consolidated, and impacted by the judge's decision from the bench last Friday.

"Once we receive a written order, then the respective boards of education will have to make a determination on whether or not to appeal," said A. J. "Buddy" Welch, legal counsel for Henry County Schools. "It is my understanding that several of the other counties involved in the litigation have decided to appeal." Those counties, said Welch, include Dekalb and Gwinnett.

"The judge did not rule from the bench on three of the issues that the Henry and Spalding county school boards raised," said Welch. "We do not know what her decision will be on those matters."

The three issues on which the judge did not rule, Welch said, are related to the impact of the charter school approvals, and how they relate to the Voting Rights Act, certain financial issues, and due-process issues.

Georgia Charter Schools Commission Chairman Ben Scafidi, however, sees the ruling differently.

"That validated my view all along that the commission was constitutional," Scafidi said. "We've been doing our job under the assumption that it would be held constitutional. I expect an appeal, and I look forward to the Supreme Court ruling," added Scafidi.

Henry County Schools, along with the Griffin-Spalding County School System, filed lawsuits in February, challenging the charter schools commission's authority. Henry County Schools Superintendent Michael Surma said attorneys for the two school districts plan to meet this week to review the judge's ruling and discuss the future of their newly consolidated case.

Henry County sued the state education body after the creation of Heron Bay Academy, a charter school which is scheduled to open in August 2011. It is scheduled to open on the property of Heron Bay Golf and Country Club, which spans parts of southern Henry County and northern Spalding County.

The school boards in Henry and Spalding denied the application of the charter school last summer, citing its exclusive nature, in relation to the country club community, as well as the funding obligations it would create for the school districts.

"I have a hard time with the state taking our local tax dollars and spending them [on the charter school]," said Henry County Board of Education Chairman Ray Hudalla. He said he believes local school boards should determine how their money is spent.

Heron Bay Academy officials plan to open the charter school with an initial 400-slot enrollment for students in grades K-6, according to Stacy Patton, a founding member of the Heron Bay Academy board of directors. Over the next two years, she said, the school plans to add a total of 150 more pupils to its program, which is planned to eventually grow to 550 students in K-8.

Patton, who attended the May 7 court hearing, said she was relieved. "We're pleased with the outcome," she said. "We felt like the judge made a real decisive decision, and we're looking forward to the opening of our school. Of course, we're wondering whether or not there will be an appeal, but we're looking forward to being a choice for parents."