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Another meeting on charter schools is Thursday

Though local school faculty and other community members have so far expressed favorable views overall toward the charter school concept with the instructional flexibility, extra money and other benefits expected to come with it, the district is forging ahead with plans to introduce it in Grady County at a “cautious” pace, as there are still many questions and concerns that need to be addressed, School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis says, conceding there likely won’t be any charter schools in Grady County until the 2013-2014 school term.
“We’re still in the talking stages, and that’s important. There’s a process and for us to be comfortable with what we’re doing, it takes time to think through ideas and become comfortable with them. We’re taking all the time we need and answering questions, because the more consideration that we put into it, the better it will be in the end,” Pharis says.
He encourages everyone in the community with questions or comments regarding charter schools to attend an upcoming meeting, 6:30 p.m., Thursday, March 1, at the Southside Elementary School auditorium. Tabitha Press, development coordinator with the Georgia Department of Education (DOE) charter division, will present a charter school overview, followed by a Q and A.
Thursday afternoon prior to the community meeting and Friday morning, Press, expected to be accompanied by another state charter school official, will also meet individually with teams from each Grady County public school to discuss the ins and outs of converting to charter schools.
Pharis is conducting similar meetings with local school faculty (these are open to the public, as well) each week, adding he is in “constant contact” with state charter school officials to get questions and concerns brought up at these meetings addressed.
Even with all the meetings already held and the dozens more planned, Pharis says no schools are yet ready to put pens to paper. This seemingly dawdling stride has some local school board members antsy, as they hope for charter school implementation by next year’s term.
“You know, I’m a little impatient also,” Pharis concedes. “I like to move. I’ve learned, however, over time, it is often best to move cautiously. I don’t believe any school is ready to commit today to charter schools for next year. I think that’s asking them to commit before they’ve had time to consider what is an important decision. I don’t think we’ve had enough time to consider all the alternatives, the pros and the cons. I believe the fall of 2013 is the appropriate time to implement it, if we do it.”
Teachers would be heavily involved in writing charters and with their ample, already-pressing obligations, it is unfair to expect them right now to devote as much time as would be necessary to implement charters for next year.
“I just don’t believe with the workload of teaching classes, preparing plans, preparing for the common core – I just don’t believe we have adequate time to do it, and I think it would be unfair to schools to ask them to. But if some school says, ‘We’re gonna do it. We want to do it right now,’ then I would say, ‘let’s do it.’ But I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”
Schools should decide whether to convert to charter schools based solely on their needs; they shouldn’t feel pressure to do so from the school board, Pharis adds.
“Every school in Grady County is interested in pursuing a charter. That’s not to say every school will pursue a charter. One thing I’m focusing on with these principals is, right now, a charter might be right for some schools, might be right for all schools, or it might not be right for some schools. So there’s no pressure from the central administration or the board to do a charter. That’s up to the school,” he says.
“I don’t want there to be a situation where there’s a school that might be considered ‘not aggressively pursuing improvement’ if they don’t go with a charter at this time. That’s a school-level issue. These people at these schools know the direction they need to be heading. They’re out there working with these kids every day.”
Charters must be approved by local and state boards before being implemented. Before a charter petition goes to the local board for approval, a voting meeting is held and a majority of the school instructional staff and a majority of parents present at the meeting have to vote “yes” to submitting the charter. Those meetings have to be announced at least two weeks in advance.
“But in addition, what I think we also need to do is get some initial input before we even start writing the charter. What I’m thinking is, that before spring holidays, we’re going to do some sort of a survey of faculty, staff and parents,” Pharis adds.
“I mean, if 10 percent says, ‘this is a great idea,’ and 90 percent say ‘this is ridiculous,’ then it’s going to be kind of silly to write a charter with that little support. So you don’t need a ‘yes’ vote to write a charter, but you need a ‘yes’ vote to submit it to the board. But we’re going to get some kind of feel from faculty and staff and the community before we even start writing the charter. It would just be an exercise in futility to do that and then say, ‘no, we’re not going to submit this charter.’ Then we’ve just wasted 200 man hours.”
Per a state mandate, by 2015, all Georgia schools must decide and declare whether they want to become a charter school of some sort, or remain a status quo institution.
The charter school concept includes an almost endless range of varieties and options and, despite the meetings and other efforts at disseminating charter school information to the community, Pharis says he consistently continues to hear many of the same questions raised. They include:
– TRUE DEFINITION OF “CHARTER SCHOOL.”  A charter school is a public school of choice that operates under the terms of a charter, or contract, with an authorizer, such as the state and local boards of education. Charter schools receive flexibility from certain state and local rules in exchange for a higher degree of accountability for raising student achievement.
If a charter is approved by the local board of education and the state then any Grady County public school could become a charter school. The local board would remain in control of charter schools.
Contrary to popular belief, a charter school is not necessarily an exclusive institution with avant garde curriculum and instruction, Grady County School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis says.
“You don’t have to be this off-the-wall specialty school. You don’t have to be an international baccalaureate elementary school. You don’t have to be a school that’s focused on some particular learning style. Your focus can be core academics, but you set goals that are higher than are expected, and you organize your school in a way to better accomplish those goals,” he asserts.
Implementing charter schools in Grady County would not mean establishing new schools with new buildings.
“There are two types of new charter schools. There’s the ‘startup school,’ which is a new building, or there’s a ‘conversion.’ In the conversion process, you’re converting an existing school into a charter school. That’s what we’re going to be doing,” Pharis says.
We don’t have buildings for additional schools or the money to build, and our facilities are actually in very good shape.”
Local school officials have also considered turning the entire district, rather than individual schools, into a “charter system.” Like a charter school, a charter system operates under the terms of a charter between the state board of education and the local school district and receives greater flexibility in exchange for higher accountability.
Pharis says the district has largely decided against the charter system route.
“The reason being the stability of the funding. No funding can be guaranteed, but the system money is state; the individual school charter money is Federal. From what we’ve been told, there’s a greater possibility of that Federal funding being a little more stable. We’re still hearing the charter system money might be cut out, because the state’s still trying to make cuts,” Pharis explains.
– WHAT DOES IT MEAN WHEN IT IS SAID CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE “PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF CHOICE?” Charter schools, contrary to popular belief, do not have special admission standards or procedures that must be met. Pharis explains how “choice” works: “Every child who lives within the school attendance zone has a guaranteed seat in that school. Every child who is currently enrolled or who has an older sibling in that school, has a guaranteed seat at that school, even if they’re from another attendance zone. Every child who is a teacher’s child or staff member’s child has a guaranteed seat at that school. Those are preference enrollments – attendance zone, current students and staff children. Then you have a cap that is set in the charter that says ‘this is the number of students this school can take.’ Anyone else in the system can apply and be accepted to that school. There are no entrance requirements at all, as long as you stay within the cap. If there are more people interested than there are seats available, everybody’s application, except the preferential students that are grandfathered in, go through a public lottery, and the names are drawn.”
– IMPACTS ON CURRENT TEACHERS. “Teachers are still tenured; they still have all of the employment rights, because they are in a Georgia public school. So teachers’ status is not impacted. They have all of the employment rights they’ve always had; tenure’s not affected,” Pharis says.
– IMPACTS ON LOCAL SCHOOL BOARD. “The board is going to lose no authority with charter schools. The local board of education is going to set the budget, set the millage, and as far as policy-making decisions, hires, fires and approves the bills and directly supervises the superintendent. The things the board does now, the board will still do. The board has indicated, basically, support for the charter project. They understand fully what the charter is and what the charter is not,” Pharis says.
– FUNDING. Individual charter schools get a financial boost in the form of two years of Federal startup funds, awarded based on the number of pupils at the school. This year, the grants range, according to school size, from $200,000 to $1.2 Million.

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