The Catoosa County Schools district saves about $4.4 million annually through a class-size waiver it received from the Georgia Department of Education.
"We requested to have up to an additional five students over the state's maximum class size," which varies by grade level, school district spokeswoman Marissa Brower said. "But in most cases where we go over, it's not more than three students."
That $4.4 million is a lot of money to the district -- almost 5 percent of its annual $93 million budget, which has been subject to "austerity reductions" from the state, the largest of which was a $10 million cut in 2010.
"To avoid putting school systems into bankruptcy, the General Assembly gave the state [school] board permission to grant blanket waivers for class-size requirements, expenditure controls, [teacher] certification and salary schedules," school district Superintendent Denia Reese said.
Other Georgia school districts have applied for and received those same money-saving waivers. But if they want to keep them, school districts must decide by June 30 whether to change their governance structure and become either a "Strategic Waiver School" or a "Charter System." The latter is different from a group of charter schools; it means the school district will sign a charter, or contract, with the state that waives most state rules and guidelines.
The changes are required under the Flexibility for Student Achievement Act, a series of Georgia laws that has been in the works since 2007.
All of Northwest Georgia's school districts are in the process of deciding which option to pick -- though some officials aren't happy about it.
"I don't like either one of them," Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said. "We're being told to make a decision based on a lack of funding."
The charter system option offers the highest level of autonomy to a school system, according to the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, an Atlanta nonprofit group. The strategic waiver school choice sets goals for individual schools, not district-level goals.
"Governance trends in Georgia are moving away from state-mandated centralization toward the decentralized approach that values local input and control," the partnership stated in an article about school governance in its "Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2015" magazine.
"Considering the state's growing diversity, this trend will allow for greater innovation in the classroom," according to the partnership. "For example, districts with a high percentage of refugees or English language learners will need to prioritize resources differently than districts that are not as diverse."
The charter system option calls for individual school governance teams, generally composed of parents, school staff and community members who are elected or appointed, the partnership states.
"Generally, for charter districts to be successful, a culture of collaboration across the district should be present."
The strategic waiver school option, which until recently was called Investing in Excellence in Education, is focused at the individual school level and will be measured by each school's score on Georgia's College and Career Ready Performance Index.
A school must show a 3 percent improvement each year on the gap between its baseline performance index score and a perfect score of 100, the partnership says. So if a school had a gap of 40 points, it would have to improve by 3 percent of 40, or 1.2 points a year.
Schools also can opt to stick with the "status quo," but then they'd lose their money-saving state waivers.
"This option would best be suited for wealthier districts," the partnership states. "These districts should already have relatively high-performing schools and wish to continue with what has been working with them."
Walker County schools officials aren't considering the option.
"We would love to stay status quo, but we can't afford to do that," Raines said.
School districts in Northwest Georgia are at various stages of deciding which option to pick.
This evening, at the regular meeting of the Dalton Board of Education, Superintendent Jim Hawkins will recommend the district choose the strategic waiver school flexibility option, school district spokeswoman Pat Holloway said.
It fits best with the way the Dalton school district runs now, Holloway said.
"[The charter system] is a completely different animal," she said. "To go to something like that in a year would be pretty hard to do."
The Dalton Board of Education receives a number of waivers from the state, including class size, Holloway said, but it tries to stay at no more than three students above the state's maximum class size guidelines.
Likewise, Whitfield County Schools recently chose the strategic school waiver flexibility option.
"It just seems like a good fit with us," district spokesman Eric Beavers said. "It seems like it would fit in with our strategic plan."
The charter system holds out the potential of some additional funding, but, Beavers said, "there was no guarantee that the districts would get more money. There was a chance, but there was nothing guaranteeing it."
Walker County Schools will hold two public hour-long forums on school governance: one at 6 p.m. May 18 in the theater at LaFayette High School and another at 6 p.m. June 9 at Ridgeland High School's theater.
"We've been talking to our teachers about this for about a year," Raines said.
Catoosa County Schools held an April 30 community engagement meeting at the Colonnade Theater in Ringgold to discuss the options.
"Our inspiration tonight is, 'This is good,'" Reese said then. "The driving force for this new law is improving student academic results. I think we can be very proud of our students' success, but with more flexibility, school systems have the opportunity to develop innovative programs."
Dade County schools officials did not return calls seeking comment last week.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.