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Clayton Schools weighing charter system status

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County school officials are trying to decide if they should convert the school district into either, an Investing in Educational Excellence [IE2] district, or a charter school system.

School System Chief Academic Officer Diana Carry said, on Monday, the Georgia Department of Education is requiring school systems in the state to make a choice by June 30, 2013.

* The choice is: whether to continue in their current format, or move to a district-state partnership as an IE2 district, or a charter school system.

Carry said it is still early in the decision-making process, but a team of school officials, who looked at the options, is leaning toward converting the district into a charter school system. They believe, she said, that it would offer the greatest flexibility for schools. She added that the district still has to get feedback from its stakeholders, before a decision can be made.

"From the team's perspective, the charter system looks like the way to go at this point in time," Carry said. "This is an important decision, so we want to make sure we get input from as many of our stakeholders as possible."

The district will spend the next seven months seeking input from stakeholders, including parents, students, and community and education leaders, according to a timeline presented to the Clayton County Board of Education on Monday. Carry said the district will present the information to the community, and the county school board sometime between October of this year, and March 2012.

Jonesboro High School Principal Stephanie Johnson, a member of the district's review team, said the school system is planning to seek public input through the district's web site, Facebook, Twitter, local newspapers, radio and television stations, focus groups, and public forums.

School districts in Putnam, Warren and Chattahoochee counties, and the cities of Decatur, Gainesville and Marietta have already adopted the "charter school system" format, while school systems in Forsyth and Gwinnett counties chose the IE2 route, according to Clayton school officials.

If the school system chooses an IE2, or charter system partnership with the state, Clayton Schools would have to enter into a five-year contract with the Georgia Department of Education, according to Nina Gupta, an attorney from the Marietta-based law firm of Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers. Gupta was a member of the district's review team. Gupta pointed out that Clayton Schools would only be allowed limited flexibility, if it went the IE2 route, because the Governor's Office of Student Achievement would have to have input in the district-state contract. "It would be flexibility within a defined framework," she said.

If the district cannot live up to the terms of its contract with the state, the Georgia Department of Education, or a neighboring school system, such as Henry County Schools, or DeKalb County Schools, would take control of Clayton's schools, Gupta said.

Gupta said Clayton Schools would gain its greatest freedom by going to the charter school system format. "It allows for broad exemptions from Code 20 [of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated], which governs how school systems operate," she said. She also said it is the only format that would allow the district to tap into extra funding sources, through state legislative appropriations.

Gupta also said, under a charter system contract with the state, Clayton Schools would merely lose its charter, and revert to its present structure, if it fails to live up to its contractual obligations.

Unlike the IE2 format, she added, the charter system option would also allow the school system to keep the Unidos Dual Language Charter School, and the Elite Scholars Academy Charter School, under its umbrella.

School system officials said there would also be a significant power shift, away from the district's central office, to individual school councils that would gain a greater amount of input in personnel and curriculum decisions at their schools, under the charter school system format.

School board member, Jessie Goree, said she would be in favor of becoming a charter system, only if individual schools truly got the flexibility promised on Monday. "I love the idea of charter schools," she said. "I love the idea of flexibility, IF the schools are really going to get flexibility ... My question is, if we're going to do this, then, what will be the role of the central office?"

Clayton County School Superintendent Edmond Heatley responded by saying schools would have to earn their flexibility. "Nobody is going to get the keys to the city, to do what he or she desires to do, unless they earn it," he said. He added that he, and the county's school board, would still be involved in decisions that affect learning in the individual schools.

"The central office will be used differently, which means we have to step up our game to make them want to use our services," Heatley said. "But, the board will still say, 'Here are the strategic goals for Clayton County Public Schools.'"

Under the district's timeline, a decision by the school system, and the Clayton County Board of Education, is not expected to come until sometime in mid-to-late-2012, or early 2013, with implementation, of whatever format is chosen, scheduled to take place in August 2013.