TRENTON, Ga. - With millions of dollars at stake, many Georgia superintendents say one state policy is forcing their districts to make a drastic shift in how schools are managed.
By 2015, school districts must choose one of two new governance structures: stay as they are or shift to a charter system.
If they choose not to make a change and instead label themselves "status quo," systems will have to forgo waivers - like those that allow schools to skirt state limits on class size.
And superintendents say those waivers are the only thing keeping them in business after losing billions of dollars in education funding in recent years.
Dade County Schools is working on a plan to shift to a charter system. School officials see advantages with the shift: Charter systems have flexibility from state education regulations and can gain additional funding while keeping their waivers. The switch also will mean that some students could end up being taught by people other than career educators, such as tradesmen and professionals.
In exchange for that flexibility, schools will have to set and meet a higher standard for performance.
The state says the shift also is designed to offer more flexibility to districts, allowing them to innovate more and possibly save money in the process.
But to some degree, local school superintendents don't think they have much choice.
So far, 20 districts have moved to charter systems. Calhoun City and Gordon County changed in 2011, becoming the first charter systems in this area. Other districts are moving more slowly, but will likely choose a charter system when the time comes.
That's because the state's other option - dubbed Investing in Educational Excellence - requires districts to cede much of their control. And few are willing to make the "status quo" choice and toss out their valuable waivers, because they just can't survive without them.
"We're held captive by them at this point," said Damon Raines, superintendent of Walker County Schools.
All but three of Georgia's 181 school systems have waivers letting class sizes go higher than state law allows. Other waivers allow for the hiring of part-time superintendents or get around state rules that require 65 percent of all district funding go toward instruction. Those waivers are helping patch the holes left by more than $7 billion in state funding cuts since 2002.
Walker County, like many North Georgia school systems, is working on long-term planning to lay the groundwork for an eventual transition. But it's not looking to make a change until more direction comes from the state or closer to the 2015 deadline.
The state already pushed back the decision deadline for districts from 2013 to 2015. And some superintendents wonder whether this year's legislative session or upcoming state elections may bring a wholesale change in the policy, which is a vestige of former Gov. Sonny Perdue's push to offer more flexibility to school systems.
That uncertainty has many waiting.
"We won't declare until the absolute deadline," said Melody Day, superintendent of Chickamauga City Schools.
Chickamauga is a small but high-performing system with higher-than-average test scores and graduation rates. Day said leaders there are satisfied with current performance, so they see no need for such a drastic change in governance. But like nearly all Georgia school districts, Chickamauga relies on state waivers to make ends meet. So she sees little choice in the upcoming decision.
"There is no choice if you have waivers and you want to continue operating as you are. I'm very much against it," she said. "If the state wants everyone to be a charter system, they should just require it outright."
By moving to a charter system - not to be confused with independently operated charter schools - Dade County hopes to receive freedom from state regulations, like those that govern who can teach. That could be especially powerful in vocational education, allowing students to learn more from tradesmen and professionals, not necessarily career educators.
The district also plans to open a college and career academy. State flexibility could allow the system to hire people without teaching certificates, said James Cantrell, the district's director of college and career education. So a local beautician could teach a cosmetology class to a few students. A career welder could teach a welding class. Or maybe a retired TVA engineer could teach a science course.
"What better teacher could you get than somebody with 30 years of experience?" Cantrell said. "Everybody in this whole community could open up their doors to help teach."
Such vocational education is crucial in Dade County. Of about 670 high school students, some 500 take some sort of career or technical education classes. And 40 percent of all graduates enter a technical school after high school.
Superintendent Shawn Tobin wants to get the charter process under way sooner rather than later. That's partially because he's uncertain whether state funding for charters will be around once more and more make the switch. The district could potentially receive about $90 more in state funding per student if the system makes the trade of state flexibility for heightened accountability.
With a charter system, each school is given more control over governance. An elected school council will help oversee each school, along with the district's school board. Tobin said that move will take some power away from the superintendent, giving community members more ownership of their schools. Depending on how the charter agreement is written, a local school council could have a role in hiring and firing, budgeting and even setting salaries.
"The key is how it's written," the superintendent said.
But changing from the status quo has caused issues in other places.
Floyd County Schools went to a charter system about four years ago. It also opened a college and career academy, as Dade envisions. Overall, the move was positive, said Tim Hensley, assistant to the superintendent. It fostered more involvement from parents and community members. Each of Floyd's 20 schools has a seven- or eight-member school governance team that helps make decisions.
But Floyd's charter status also highlighted the legal gray areas of shifting the power base. After layoffs came down from the central office, one counselor challenged the decision with the state board and the courts, saying the decision circumvented the local school governance team. That case is still unresolved.
"There are just a lot of gray areas there," Hensley said. "Unfortunately, someone has to be out there to set the tone that everyone else looks at."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.