Cobb school board eyes switch to charter system
by Hannah Morgan
December 24, 2013 12:15 AM | 3852 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MARIETTA — The Cobb County school system is looking at switching to a charter system in the next few years, board members say.

Discussions will begin in the new year as to whether or not Cobb will join the state’s 16 existing charter systems.

Board Chairman Randy Scamihorn said the board would be considering its options, which include switching to a charter system or remaining a state public school system.

Board members seem to be far from united, though, with members for and against the switch.

The state Board of Education has asked each of the state’s 181 school districts to declare what sort of system they want to be by June 2015.

According to information on the state Department of Education website, there were 131 approved charter schools in the 2013-14 school year.

The Cobb Board of Education wants to get started on discussions this year, Scamihorn said, so they would have time to thoroughly make a decision.

More flexibility

School Board member David Morgan said he would love for the district to make the switch.

Becoming a charter system would give the district more flexibility, Morgan said, and potentially engage students and parents more.

“It gives you an avenue to make real structural changes,” Morgan said. “The sky’s the limit.”

The board has discussed the switch a number of times since Morgan came on the board in 2009, and is in the process of listening to parents and administrators on what is needed and wanted in the district’s schools.

He hopes any changes made in the coming years would benefit south Cobb, which he represents.

“I know we desperately want something different because it is quite obvious the way we are currently delivering education in the south Cobb area is something that needs to be changed,” he said.

With the change, the district could lengthen school days, change the way teachers are paid and switch up the hiring and firing process, Morgan said.

Members unsure

Board member Kathleen Angelucci said she was unsure what option would be best for Cobb.

The district has applied waivers from the state that allows them to squeeze up to eight additional students in a classroom above the state mandated limit. These waivers will expire in 2015, and won’t necessarily be granted in the future for systems that chose to remain status quo, Scamihorn said.

Angelucci is worried the district will be stuck without much of a choice in deciding what option to choose.

She is worried about what switching to a charter system might cost the district, and if the switch will be able to be successfully implemented on such a large school district.

“Choosing the charter route isn’t really the best choice for Cobb, it’s very difficult to implement for a large system. It is more ideal for the smaller school districts in Georgia,” she said.

Marietta already made the switch

Marietta City Schools became a charter system in 2008, which has given the district more flexibility with how it pays and hires teachers.

Superintendent Emily Lembeck said she has seen enormous growth in the school system since the district made the change.

In 2008, Lembeck said 33 percent of the district’s students exceeded the minimum state academic standards, and by 2012, that number had grown to 61 percent, a growth she attributes to the shift to a charter system.

With the increased flexibility that comes with a charter system, Lembeck said the district has become wiser at how it is spending its money, placing teachers and running the system’s 11 schools.

Fuzzy details

There are at least six varieties of charter schools the district can choose from, Scamihorn said, although he hasn’t had the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of each one yet.

He admitted there would most likely be issues with either of the options the board was expected to choose, but was confident the district would work to minimize any problems that arose because of a system switch.

While charter systems may bring more flexibility, they come with a large cost upfront when districts are required to write new bylaws.

Lembeck, of Marietta Schools, said the district spent a large sum of money when it initially became a charter system when it hired a consulting firm to help create presentations used to inform the community of the system switch.

She couldn’t estimate the total cost of the switch, but said it didn’t strain the system’s budget.

“It wasn’t anything that was something we were unable to handle,” she said.

Becoming a charter system hasn’t affected the number of teachers within the district, either, Lembeck said.

Overall, the Marietta schools are making more money as a charter system, Lembeck said.

The system has more control over where they spend their money, and doesn’t have to spend it where the state has mandated for public school systems.

For example, Lembeck said MCCS had an increase in enrollment last year, which gave them the ability to hire a part-time counselor. The school community talked, and decided that it didn’t want or need a part-time counselor, and instead hired a parent liaison, at a much lower cost.

If they hadn’t been in a charter system, the school would have been forced to pay more for the salary of a part-time counselor, she said.

“It doesn’t cost us more. We benefit financially as a charter system,” Lembeck said.

The process

It would be about a three- to six-month process to become a charter system, according to information on the state Department of Education website, gadoe.org.

If the CCSD decides to remain a public state system, it wouldn’t need to do anything but declare it is remaining a public state system.

If the board agrees it wants to become a charter system, if would need to send a petition to the state Department of Education, which would need to be approved by the Georgia Department of Education, the website said.

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