School struggle

School struggle

May 29th, 2011 by Kelli Gauthier in News

Teachers and students say goodbye at the end of the final day of school at Oakland Elementary in Cartecay, Ga., east of Ellijay. The school is closing, but a community group wants to open a charter school in the building. Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press

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ELLIJAY, Ga. - A group of people trying to start a charter school in Gilmer County say their struggle is a perfect example of why a statewide charter approval commission should not have been ruled unconstitutional.

Because the Georgia Supreme Court overruled a 2008 law establishing the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, those wishing to open charter schools must get approval from their local school board. And in many cases, school boards want to keep charter schools out of their districts.

That's exactly the problem the Gilmer group says it faces. In the past, if the Gilmer school board had rejected the charter application for Oakland Academy, the decision could have been appealed to the statewide commission.

"I really don't think we got a fair shake at the local board of education," said Isaac Lassiter, a parent and founding board chairman of Oakland Academy. "This is the perfect example of the type of nonsense you get from local school boards that are the sole decision-making group on charter schools."

The Gilmer County Board of Education has not voted on an application for Oakland Academy. Superintendent Bryan Dorsey pulled a waiver request for Oakland off a recent board agenda, saying the board has other, more pressing matters to consider.

"Right now, we've taken on a big undertaking with our financial crisis, and that's just got to take the priority right now," Dorsey said.

Facing a steadily declining tax digest and a budget nearly 30 percent smaller than it was two years ago, the Gilmer County board voted to restructure the entire school system and close venerable Oakland Elementary, Dorsey said.

Rather than send their children to other Gilmer County schools, Lassiter and other parents and teachers want to turn Oakland into a charter.

Oakland is a community institution, Lassiter said, and converting the school to a charter - which, even if approved, couldn't happen until 2013 - is one way of preserving it.

"[Closing the school] was insulting to say the least," he said. "There was a budget shortfall, and they hacked off the arm without any discussion. And we weren't cool with it."

Like other charters, Oakland Academy could have more flexibility and innovation than public schools but would be held to higher academic standards. If the students' achievement level didn't rise, the academy could be closed.

Now that Oakland Elementary is closed, parent Esmeralda Garland worries that her daughter Helena will have to go to first grade at a much larger school, where she could be overlooked. Garland has been attending informational meetings about Oakland Academy and said she supports the idea of the charter.

"I want my child to be encouraged, I want her to be pushed," Garland said. "I don't want her to slack off or be allowed to slack off. I want her to have the best education."

Gilmer school board Chairwoman Kathy W. Jones represents Oakland's district.

Jones said that, in many cases, charter schools are a wonderful idea that have proven successful. But because state money would be funneled away from the school district to the charter school for each enrolled student, it's going to be a tough sell, she said.

"This is not a personal attack against charter schools," she said. "It's about educating all our children with the money we've got to do it."

Lassiter said his group still plans to submit a charter school application in August, and Jones said board members will listen with open minds.

But if the board rejects the charter school, its sponsors may not have anywhere else to turn.

Lassiter remains determined.

"If [the local board] turns us down, we're going to make them give us reasons," he said. "In the end, we'll call them out."