After a discussion that, at times, seemed to grow heated among the , school board members voted 4-2 to approve a resolution asking that residents vote down a constitutional amendment that would restore the state’s power to approve charter schools.
Board member Michael Geist, who with Kim Cochran voted against the resolution, said that although the school system lost $2.1 million this year because it had 575 fewer students than anticipated, the county saw $4 million more this year than it would have otherwise because of the funding that was allocated to . And, that money is being spread among all the students because Cherokee County School District students attend the charter school. The charter school also helps alleviate overcrowding and increased class sizes, Geist said.
“This truly is a win-win, and frankly, I don’t understand why we don’t all agree with that,” Geist said. “We had $4 million more in this county than we would have had otherwise.”
“But that was out of reserves,” board member Janet Read said.
“But it was still spent on kids in our county,” Geist said.
This year, school system employees had four furlough days while charter school employees had none. Next year, CCSD employees likely will have eight furlough days as part of a plan to combat a $22 million budget shortfall, Superintendent Frank Petruzielo said.
“I’m dead serious about what the real problem is here,” Petruzielo said. “The real problem is that public education and funding it is not a priority for the Georgia legislature. We have a different kind of lawmaker out there today. Years ago, lawmakers went to public schools themselves. They appreciated them. They supported them. I can’t remember the last time I heard a query from legislators about what they could do to help public schools. The notion that somehow everybody can have everything is just not the case.”
Cochran said she couldn’t vote for anything that looks like propaganda of anti-charter lobby in form of a resolution. She said she opposed inflammatory language in the resolution, such as stating that those who advocate for school vouchers don’t support public education.
“I can’t believe we’re deliberating putting this kind of idea into a published opinion,” Cochran said.
Not all students attending charter schools come from rich, privileged or well-educated families. For example, at Ivy Preparatory School in Gwinnett County, more than 80 percent of students are African-American girls from low income homes who Cochran said are hoping to achieve American dream.
“This resolution says that their parents and supporters are trying to widen the divide between classes,” Cochran said. "Since when is it our position to stereotype people?”
According to House Resolution 1162, the state is authorized to expend state funds for special schools, such as charter schools, but should not be taken from any state funding that a local school system is authorized to receive. Cochran said she didn’t understand why the resolution says that tax dollars will be reverted.
“The only way to argue this takes money from local schools is to speculate that maybe money going to charter schools would go to public schools,” Cochran said. “You can make the same argument for anything. That health programs shouldn’t be funded. It should go to the local board.”
Read said she had hoped that someone who took issue with the resolution would have emailed her prior to the board meeting.
“I was hoping to maybe see something (earlier) instead of tonight,” Read said. “If you just wrote that today, it’s pretty awesome. One intention was so we could have some discussion about this ahead of time.”
Read said that Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) mentioned during a that money to fund charter schools will come out of the state budget.
“Anytime you take money out of the state budget, as we say, the pie is going to get smaller,” Read said. “We have not been fully funded, which is why we’re looking at 32 kids in a fourth grade classroom, which is why we’re looking at furlough days. If not furlough days, we probably would have 45 kids in a class. That’s just a reality of life.”
Though he agreed that the resolution is inflammatory in some regards, Board Chairman Mike Chapman said the state’s constitution gives the responsibility of money management to the local school systems.
“The state has usurped that already,” Chapman said. “We as a board are here to help that school succeed. We are not here to fight with Cherokee Charter Academy. I have no dog in that fight.”
Residents on both sides of the issue spoke during the meeting. Allison Campbell said that Cherokee Charter Academy is a good fit for her daughter.
“My child would cry to go to school because she felt stupid because she couldn’t read as well as the other children,” Campbell said. “My child would hide in the bathroom, and the school would have to call me. Here, she has three teachers in her classroom. She doesn’t have to leave to go to other classes anymore. She gets to stay with her friends, and she gets to make friends for the first time in three years."
Campbell said that, while she can understand that many are afraid the charter school will take money away from the county school system, it doesn’t receive local funding.
“I don’t understand why we’re making this so much about money when it’s about the students, and it’s about choice, and it’s about education,” Campbell said. “We are state-funded. If we could just all work together, we could make this a great place, great for the schools, for everybody if we could just work as a team instead of butting heads.”
Kelly Anfuso said that Cherokee Charter Academy hasn’t taken one dime from the local school system.
“Nothing that was cut this year was because of the charter,” she said. “I’m tired of people saying, ‘It’s the money, it’s the money. We need to find the money.’ This has been the nastiest, the most crazy (situation). It’s like a controlling situation of I’m going to get what I want. We need to put the children back on the priority list.”
Carol Taylor said she supports the school board’s resolution, citing a growing student population and a decreasing budget. She said she’s not opposed to special schools but is opposed to funding special schools when existing schools in the local school system are not adequately funded.
“Before offer additional options, why not fully fund schools that already exist?” she said. “If the claims are there isn’t enough money, how would they fund a special school?”
Elizabeth Crook said that it’s “implausible” that there is room in educational funds or the overall state budget for state-approved charter schools.
Cherokee County residents will vote on the constitutional amendment in November.
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