State Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell) is one of the organizers of the proposed school, to be called the STEM Inventors Academy. Her husband, David Morgan, is vice chair of Cobb’s school board, and last fall cast the deciding vote to close another charter school in the same south Cobb area as this proposed school.
Cobb’s two leading universities, Kennesaw State and Southern Polytechnic, are both on board as partners with the proposed school, and Cobb Chamber President David Connell is among those who wrote letters on the organizers’ behalf for the grant.
On Jan. 11, the same day the STEM Academy team learned it had won the $50,000 “Venture Grant” under RTTT, organizers notified the Cobb district of their intent to seek a charter.
Jay Dillon, a spokesman for Cobb Schools, downplayed the amount of help district staff provided in the charter’s application for the federal dollars, saying district staff only met with the group once or twice.
He also said that this was the first time the district had ever been asked to help with procuring such funds, and only the second time ever that any proposed charter school had come to the district for help. (The first, he said, was in 2008 when organizers of the local aviation museum made efforts toward getting state money for a STEM charter school, but those efforts failed.)
Nathaniel Riley Jr., 35, of Mableton is one of the organizers behind the STEM Academy school. He said he asked the Cobb district last summer for the help, and he submitted the RTTT application on Nov. 1. Riley is a director at financial firm IntercontinentalExchange Inc. and a father of two. The Memphis native has one child in a Cobb elementary school and one in a private middle school, he said.
His goal with the charter school is to add options for parents in south Cobb, where test scores tend to be well below other schools in the county, highlighting a stark achievement gap.
“We love our community in Mableton. I do not know any other area we could move to with the level of racial, socioeconomic, cultural and age diversity as you can find the south Cobb area. To some, this diversity is viewed as a crutch as to why there are challenges in some of the schools. My belief is that it is this diversity that should strengthen our schools. There should be options available to parents in south Cobb who have an interest in STEM, or any other focus for that matter,” Riley said.
“In my idealistic world of schools in south Cobb, we would have a plethora of themed school options available to choose from, and personally speaking, it doesn’t matter what organizational model is used, whether it be charter, magnets or something in between. The main goal is making sure that the school leadership and the model that is used is optimized to ensure the school can be effective,” he said.
The grant money will be used to help the organizers develop a solid plan for the K-12 school they hope to open in fall 2013, though Riley declined to be more specific. The school district will serve as a “pass-through” for the grant money, which has not yet been received.
Still unknown is how many people will sit on the board of the charter school, and who those people will be; where the school will be located; and exactly how much it will cost to operate.
Besides Rep. Morgan and the Chamber’s Connell, others who wrote letters of support in the grant application were Dr. Ronald Matson, interim dean of KSU’s science and math college; James Valbrun, a partner in the Atlanta-based law firm of Wotorson, Thompson and Valbrun; Clarice Barber-Page, a 2008 candidate for the Cobb County Commission; Pastor Wilbur T. Purvis III of Destiny World Church in Austell; Darlene Duke, executive director of the Sweetwater C.A.M.P. nonprofit; and south Cobb residents Beth Lloyd, Andrea Young and Valerie Testman
Rep. Morgan announced the proposed school and its grant at a community meeting on Jan. 13, but has refused to answer further questions.
But David Morgan says he helped the charter school team connect with the school district.
“I wanted to make sure that those people were in contact with each other,” he said. “Especially if it was another opportunity to bring another school into our district.”
But most of his fellow school board members apparently knew nothing of the proposed school, or any help it was getting from district staff.
Lynnda Eagle, David Banks, Kathleen Angelucci, Tim Stultz and Alison Bartlett all said they were unaware of the partnership.
Banks, of northeast Cobb, said that he thought it was “interesting” that Morgan knew about STEM Inventors Academy when he voted in September against renewing the charter of Imagine International Academy of Mableton.
“What’s going on there?” Banks asked.
On Sept. 29, the board voted, 4-3, to close Imagine Mableton after this school year, as recommended by the superintendent. Stultz, Angelucci and Banks cast the three votes to allow it to stay open.
This week, Morgan rejected the idea that he should have recused himself from that vote, in light of his help to the STEM Academy school. At last Thursday night’s school board meeting, some public-comment speakers also chastised him for voting on the Imagine school.
“I most definitely think there was not a conflict of interest,” Morgan said. “Nothing in the world negates two quality charter schools being in the same area. If we had two start-up charters in our area that complemented each other, I could see it working. That’d be great for students, it’d be a great choice for parents.”
Without Morgan, the vote would have resulted in a 3-3 tie, meaning the school could have been allowed to continue.
Banks, one of those who voted in favor of the Imagine school, said the vote should be revisited. Stultz, another who voted for Imagine, said he too would like the board to reconsider — but only if a member of the majority would agree to put it back on the agenda.
In an email, Stultz said, “I have a desire to see it back on the agenda and would be happy to make that request, but only if a member who voted with the majority was willing to do the same.”
At this point, that looks unlikely. At least three of those in the majority say they’re not inclined to reconsider.
But Morgan said he will indeed recuse himself from any votes regarding the STEM Academy charter.
“I don’t want to muddy the waters,” he said.