11/06/2013 – DCPC

Dunwoody Chamblee Parents’ Council (DCPC) discusses School System Flexibility in Georgia with Nancy Jester, Dan Weber, Trenton Arnold, Tom Taylor and Andrew Lewis.

Nancy Jester
Schools have to make some choices coming up. I pulled the law that extended the deadline for that. It was previously the case that school districts had to make some choices sometime in 2013.  But, that deadline has been extended to 2015.  The law says that no later than that, each local school system shall either notify the department of its intention to request increased flexibility pursuant to this article or shall comply. So, basically you’ve got to make a choice of what type of school system you are going to be or the status quo.  

So, what kinds of choices can be made?  The Department of Education does have some good information about these choices on their website. I also think there is some misinformation in the way they characterize some of the choices you can make.  So, you can follow up with me on that.  I’ll try to address that today.
The choices you can make have a range of autonomy for a district.  You can choose to be, what currently Gwinnett and Forsyth is doing, an IE2 system.  That stands for Investing in Educational Excellence.  That is a very centralized approach to reform, increased student achievement and accountability. You can be a charter system.  And, you can be a Status Quo school system.  Those are all more centralized mechanisms that you can choose to be.
You can choose to be a Strategic School system.  That’s a new flavor being talked about.  Or, you can choose to be a system of chartered schools.
Status Quo
The local system has to enter into a contract with the State Board and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.  The contract will specify, depending on the school district, what the parameters of flexibility are.  If decide to maintain the status quo and stay a traditional school system, you will, according to the Department of Education, no longer be entitled to waivers like class size.  That’s a waiver we’ve been getting for a long time.  That’s the one that has the biggest financial impact on a district.  So, if the district stays status quo, they will no longer get that class size waiver.
You can enter into an IE2 that is very centralized.  Again, top down management.  So, you get flexibility.  You can ask for specific waivers, but you will have to meet higher accountability standards for student achievement in exchange for that flexibility.  The one thing about IE2 that we are not seeing explicitly in the other agreements is, in the contract there is a loss of governance if a school fails to meet its targets.  That’s interesting.  And, they spell out things that happen with a school if they do not meet their targets.  It’s interesting because I’m not sure the mechanism … yes, contractually a district has agreed they would lose governance if they don’t meet their targets.  But, based on state law and the constitution, I’m not sure the enforce-ability of that.  That remains to be seen.
Chartered System
A chartered system is where the entire system enters into an agreement.  There is an emphasis on school based leadership and decision making.  That’s the terminology the Department of Education is using … increased school level autonomy and accountability.  You can get some waivers.  There’s an emphasis on school based leadership in a chartered system.

Strategic School System

A strategic school system is a new animal.  It’a a hybrid of status quo with limited accountability and limited waivers.  You can’t request the largest financial impact waivers like class size.
System of Charters
In a system of charters, decision making must be school based.  Each school along with the school system would have to have a contract with the state.  A chartered system is just one contract and one mechanism is spelled out where we are increasing autonomy in each of those schools.  A system of charters has a local board for each individual school and each school enters into a contract with the state.

Status Quo

With status quo there’s no performance contract.  There’s no flexibility.  No changes required.  You get no waivers.  Must comply with everything.  I don’t think our district, given its current financial state, would enter into that kind of agreement.
Basically what we’re going to end up with is … Chartered System is still centralized and is categorized in the Department of Education as a centralized governance system.  A system of chartered schools would not be.  There is some additional funding for chartered systems if appropriated.  There is $100/student funding capped at $4.5 million continually appropriated

Dan Weber(Executive Director of the Charter System Foundation)
The various choices get confusing because there are so many choices.  What is it that’s driving these different choices being created by the General Assembly, state policy makers?  At the core is the belief that if you give more decision making authority and power at the school house level to teachers, parents, community members and local business people, the decisions will be made closer to the student.  Better decisions in terms of allocations of resources will be made and each child will get a better individualized education.
Counter to that is the recognition that the current model we have in this country, state and county has proven itself not to work.  That is a top down model where the federal government imposes regulations on the state.  There was No Child Left Behind and that’s going away.  We now have new things imposed on the state like Race To The Top.  At the state level, state policy makers believe we have to do something about education.  So, we impose mandates and regulations and requirements at the state level to the central office.  It doesn’t work well.  But, out constituents demand this of us because they want us to do something.  So, you talk about class size requirements, seat time, salary schedules … a whole host of things where the central office of these school systems, their hands are tied.  You have expenditure controls.  In larger systems, like in the metro area, the central office tends to impose mandates and requirements on each school.
There’s a belief, at the state level, that top down mandate and regulation does not improve education.  So you try to replace that with a bottom up approach where people who go to the schools and know the students the best are making the decisions.  That’s the reason for all these different flavors of charter schools and systems. To put a menu of options out there for people to look at.
It gets confusing when talking about charter schools, clusters and systems.  This is how I look at it.  When you’re talking about a charter school, think about drawing a circle around that school.  State mandates and regulations are blocked in that charter.  That charter is a contract, but it’s also a grant of authority from the state. You don’t have the regulations for class sizes, seat time, etc … at the school level.  In exchange for that, the school must meet higher performance standards.
Charter School
There are two types of charter schools.  One is a start up independent charter school like Kipp Academy in Atlanta where the non profit Kipp organization is the employer of the administrators and instructional staff.  The other is a local conversion charter school like the ones we have in Dunwoody.  There, the instructional staff and administrators remain the employees of the central office.  Even though they have charter status, they remain largely under the control of the Superintendent and central office staff.
Charter Cluster
The charter cluster concept, think about a high school with all of its feeder middle and elementary schools.  Draw a circle around it.  That entire cluster is free from state mandates under their charter.  Charter clusters cannot be created, however, without the approval of the local school board.  We have some excellent leadership at the Druid Hills Cluster moving to charter cluster status.  They would be the first in Georgia to do that.  I’m biased because the charter cluster concept was the first thing I worked on as a freshman in the Georgia State Senate.  Charter clusters are free from state mandates.  In exchange, they must meet higher performance standards.  Another thing about charter clusters is that the non profit would become the employer of the administrative staff and the instructional staff.  So, the link to the central office would largely be broken.  But, the central office would play an important role in oversight, holding them accountable.
Charter System
Draw a circle around the entire school system.  The entire school system is free from state mandates and regulations.  It’s a contract between the local school board and the state.  There are two flavors of charter systems.  One is called charter systems where you have to maximize school level governance.  The idea is to make decisions closer to the student.  The second is IE2 is like a charter system, except you don’t have to maximize school level governance.  If you don’t perform according to your charter, individual schools would become and operate like independent start up charters.
We have 3 systems in Georgia that are IE2.  There are no other systems moving to be IE2.  There are systems moving toward chartered system status where they maximize school level governance.  School systems must decide by the Summer of 2015.  They will lose all waivers if they don’t move into one of those systems.  There is a huge political debate on whether or not that date will be moved back again.   There are a lot of Superintendents and school board members around the state assuming it will be extended.  There are some powerful people in the General Assembly that don’t want it extended.
We have 19 charter systems in Georgia and 3 more coming.  20 others have expressed interest.  It’s about changing the culture of the school system at the school house level, giving school governing councils real authority over personnel, budget and curriculum decisions.  Our charter system superintendents are doing neat things around Georgia.  Most school systems in Georgia only have one high school.  So, most charter systems are essentially the same as a charter cluster.
Funding as a charter system continues every year.  It’s capped at $4.5 million dollars.  Fulton county is using that as an innovation fund for their schools to compete for the money.  If DeKalb County has the foresight, they will approve the Druid Hills Charter Cluster petition.  They will become a charter system with charter clusters in it.  The state is encouraging DeKalb Schools to become a chartered system with charter clusters within the system.

Andrew Lewis (GCSA)
I’m the executive vice president for the Georgia Charter Schools Association.  We are doing a great deal of work with the Druid Hills Charter community.  I’m here to talk a little about charter clusters using the Druid Hills community as a backdrop.
Under one high school, for a cluster, a petition is brought forth.  For Druid Hills that includes 7 schools.  4 of those schools are Title I schools.  It was an organic process that started almost a year ago.  If this cluster is approved, all children in the Druid Hills attendance zone will be served.  By law, all students must be served within their cluster.
What makes up the Druid Hills Cluster?  Most people think it’s mostly middle class white people.  It’s actually 61% African American, 18% White, 10% Asian, and 7% Hispanic.  As a cluster, it will be governed by a 501C3 non profit board.  The idea is to empower the principals.
There is a formula for all charters:
* Flexibility – Allow inovative practices
* Autonomy – Autonomy through self governance in exchange for accountability
The most important part of flexibility is allowing the charter cluster board to prioritize expenditures.

Trenton Arnold (Area Superintendent)
All districts have been afforded the option to be given the opportunity to make some very important decisions regarding the governance of the district. Summer 2015 is the deadline. The district has developed a timeline to see what is the best option for the district and how do we approach this opportunity.
What the district has done is divide the timeline into 4 sections.  The 1stsection, right now, deals will be until the end of the year.  The district is going to focus on developing a flexible advisory committee.  This committee will comprise of employees and parents and maybe board members.  They are going to review all the options.  Their first meeting will be held no later than Dec 13th.
The 2nd stage will by Jan 2014 to May 2014.  The FAC will continue until the final recommendation is presented to the Superintendent by March 1 2014.  It will be presented to the board.  Work will begin immediately should IE2 or Charter option be selected.  Moving forward, the FAC will monitor all processes to make sure the original vision is maintained.  The state requires a letter of intent by May 2014.
The 3rd state will by May 2014 to Oct 2014.  Depending on which option the district chooses, the timelines are different.  For the charter option, drafting the charter petition will continue and presented to the board by Aug 2014.  It will be delivered Oct 2014 to the state.  The IE2 option will require a meeting with the Department of Education.  By Sept 2014 the district will begin negotiations with the Department of Education and Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.  Should the district select Status Quo, a public hearing will be held in July 2014.  After Nov 2014, the decision and all documentation will be handed over to the state.  By July 2015, the district will operate under the new timeline.

Tom Taylor (Georgia House of Representatives)
The state currently limits the number of school districts to 180.  In 1945, when they wrote the current constitution, they wrote in there shall be no new school systems.  Prior to that, the constitution from 1877 to 1945, any municipal or subdivision of state could establish their own school system at will.  The counties did not want competition from the smaller municipalities.  In the context of that, we had small county populations.  I don’t think they anticipated the size of our current school districts.  In 1945, DeKalb had about 10,000 students.  Dunwoody, right now, has about 8,000 students.
SACS putting the county on probation drove me to drop this bill.  When the Governor removed the school board, and I don’t include Nancy as one of the board members that needed to be removed, it was just by law.  When the Governor removed the school board, in the DeKalb Delegation, out of 23 members only 6 of us stood with the Governor.  That means everybody else was satisfied with the status quo which was unacceptable.  The new school board will be elected next May.  I’m confident you’ll see a lot of the old board back.
The largest employers outside of the metro area is schools and hospitals.  Outside the metro area, there will be a lot of resistance.  The bill, as constructed, allows any city formed since 2005 to form independent school systems.  It allows the formulation of school systems across county lines.  It allows contiguous municipalities to form independent school districts together.
The first hearing was last March and was very favorable.  This will require a constitutional amendment.  It will require 2/3 in each house and then a state referendum, so it’s a high bar.  Dan Weber said we would never get our own city, but we were able to do it.
This session is extremely short with the primaries moved up to May.  The session starts Jan 13.  There are 40 legislative days.  March 18 and 22 are the possible end days which is very ambitious.  Usually we are out of there the week before the Masters.  This will be tough … analogous to the Milton County vote.
The Dunwoody feasibility study is almost finished.  We are tweaking a couple of numbers.  Given the same millage rate, the revenue would far exceed the expenditures.  It would exceed it by more than the City of Dunwoody’s operating budget.  Given equalization grants, the other areas would basically be a wash.  Funding for the rest of DeKalb’s students would go down about $88/student.
The Dunwoody City Council would not appoint the school board.  That would be against the law.  The school board would be elected as dictated by law.  The Druid Hills Charter Cluster vote will be the bellwether.

Questions And Answers
Q: Allegra
My question is for Mr. Arnold.  How will this decision affect our current charter petitions?  We’ve been told to hold off on our rewrites, but we have state deadlines.
A: Mr. Arnold
I’ll have to check with Mr. Boza.  My understanding is that the individual charters would maintain their existing charters.
A: Dan Weber
I’d like to add to that.  If DeKalb were to become a charter system, the school governing council would have local decision making authority increased well above what you have now.
Q: ???
Charter law says you may not have enrollment preferences.  DeKalb county has magnets.  If we go with a Charter System and each school becomes a charter, then how can we enforce the magnet requirements?
A: Dan Weber
I don’t know.
A: Andrew Lewis
These charters do not meet the federal definition of charter, so they do not have the same requirements.  Decatur is a charter system, but they are not charters as defined by the federal government. For example, there is no school choice.  Also, while each school in Decatur has leadership councils they are not recognized as governing boards.  The Museum school or ICS, however, have governing boards.
Q: Lynn Deutsch
There is no doubt that smaller and poorer school systems are doing better for their students than most of the metro Atlanta school systems.  These small school systems are better at designing a curriculum more tailored for their students.
My question is the difference between ‘Shall’ and ‘Should’, ‘May’ and ‘Must’ because I’ve been in the conversion charter school business a really long time.  The concern I have is the ability for a school to control their own destiny when the law says may and should instead of must and shall.  Are you really seeing middle management letting schools control their own destiny.
A: Dan Weber
This was the biggest fight in the General Assembly.  We came up with a compromise.  In the charter systems we have, they are doing it.  But, it takes leadership from the school board and Superintendent.
Last Comment: Nancy Jester
I would like to reiterate Lynn’s concerns.  Tom’s bill is the gold standard.  Nothing would be better for our kids and taxpayers in the area than an independent school district.  That is for all of the kids and not just the ones that form their own school districts.  There is ample evidence out there.  Michigan did a study.  They noted they would save money by consolidating small school districts.  They found out the cost savings from breaking up large districts was 12 times as great as consolidating small districts.  The evidence is clear that student achievement excels in smaller districts.  Compare the smaller districts in Georgia to the large metro districts.  Look across all the demographics.  Compare Valdosta to DeKalb and you will see exactly what Lynn pointed out.
Charter Systems are labeled by the Department of Education as a centralized governance structure.  There is ‘May’ and ‘Can’ instead of ‘Must’ and ‘Will’ as far as mandating governance being pushed down to the school house.  Some places could accomplish this, but I do not believe DeKalb can do that.  Hall County is a county that could do that.  Their Superintendent is willing to relinquish control.  He’s an amazing Superintendent.