And there’s another problem: Although Hinojosa notified school board members of the proposed STEM Inventors Academy in a written board update letter last fall, he did not get their explicit approval for the project and it was never discussed in public.
“I take responsibility for that,” Hinojosa said. “There’s a clause that I needed board approval. I notified them, but I take responsibility for that not taking place.”
Hinojosa told the Journal this week that after learning about the STEM school idea from board member David Morgan, he was interested in converting an existing school into a charter school. He did have an idea for a particular school to convert, though he declined to name that school.
But ultimately, citizens organizing the charter favored creating a new school — a decision they reached after the grant application had been submitted.
“We submitted the grant application in October, and we were in two different places at that time,” he said. “Later, they decided they only wanted a start-up.”
The district, though, is legally prohibited from starting a charter school.
Cobb’s two public universities, Kennesaw State and Southern Polytechnic, are named as partners in the charter school on the grant application.
Hinojosa said he is now trying to get KSU to take the lead on it.
“If we can amend the application and the state would accept that, great,” he said. “Worst-case, we’ll have to reject the grant.”
A decision needs to be made within two weeks, he said. But even if KSU agrees to spearhead the application, it is still unclear who would actually operate the school.
“I think (KSU) is willing to take the lead in the grant applications, but the community group would have to create their own 501(c) 3 to operate it,” Hinojosa said.
KSU president Dr. Dan Papp was unavailable to talk about the charter. But Arlethia Perry-Johnson, the university's vice president of external affairs, confirmed KSU has been asked to take the lead on the activities of the planning grant only.
“We are currently in deliberations both internally and externally as to the merits of that request,” she said. “There have been absolutely no conversations or considerations about KSU running a charter school.”
Perry-Johnson said Papp had been briefed on the project last October by Dr. Arlinda Eaton, dean of KSU’s education college.
Southern Poly president Dr. Lisa Rossbacher deferred questions about her school’s association with the project to an associate professor in SPSU’s teacher-training program.
Dr. George Stickel, director of teacher education at SPSU, said he does not see his university operating a charter school.
“We said we would work with them on curriculum development, STEM opportunities and having our students work with them on field experience,” Stickel said. “I would not think that (SPSU) would want to be the head of a charter school, but we would be glad to help promote quality STEM education. At this point, everything was preliminary.”
The STEM charter school is apparently the brainchild of Mableton parent Nate Riley.
David Morgan, who represents the south Cobb area where the charter would be located, said Riley first mentioned the school to him about three years ago. Morgan liked Riley’s idea, he said, “because the area where I am has not performed as well as everyone would like, and this would be a shot in the arm.”
“Nate had been talking about this for at least three years,” Morgan said. “When the Race to the Top money became available, the stars aligned. Why not take advantage of it for children?”
The $50,000 planning grant was awarded by the state using Race to the Top funds, and the 147-page application names Cobb’s chief academic officer, Dr. Judi Jones, as the project director. Jones said she did not write any part of the application.
“There were many KSU and SPSU faculty members who joined together with some of the community members to write the grant,” she said.
The application includes letters of support from people like Cobb Chamber CEO David Connell, though Connell refused to say who asked him to write the letter.
All of this comes as another start-up charter school in south Cobb, Imagine International Academy at Mableton, prepares to close its doors at the end of this year. Last September, the school board voted 4-3 against renewing Imagine Mableton’s charter. Morgan voted with the majority, which critics say gives the appearance of a conflict, since he knew about the proposed STEM charter school.
Morgan’s wife, State Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, an Austell Democrat, is part of the STEM school’s governing board, according to the grant request.
Both David Morgan and Hinojosa have said they see no such conflict with Morgan’s vote, because nothing prohibits two charter schools from operating in the same area.
But James Owmby, the principal of Imagine Mableton, has called on the board to reconsider the vote, and for Morgan to recuse himself.
“They put us under a death sentence,” he said.