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December 11, 2012ALPHARETTA, Ga. – The looming closure of the Fulton Science Academy High School has seen none of the drama created last year with the closing of its sister school, the FSA Middle School, as a public charter school.
Noticeably absent are the local politicians and community leaders who came out in force to try and stop the Fulton County School System from revoking last year the charter from the high performing middle school. One year later, few voices have come forward in support of keeping its sister high school open as a charter school.
Last week, the seven-member Fulton County Board of Education voted unanimously to begin termination proceedings against the charter high school at the end of June 2013. If successful, the high school will either close its doors completely in June, or convert to a private high school —the route taken by the FSA Middle School.
"[Recommending the closing of the school] is not a decision that we made lightly as a staff," said Fulton Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa. "We take our responsibility of oversight for all schools very seriously."
The recommendation to close the high school came after an extensive audit over the summer that examined the financial and operational processes of the school. The audit concluded significant deficiencies were apparent, and serious enough to warrant a closing of the school.
FSA HS has the right to ask for a hearing before the Fulton School Board, but has not decided its course of direction yet.
"The FSA High School Governing Board was very surprised and shocked by the FCSS's decision, and by the points of their report," said Randall Morgan, a member of the governing board at FSA HS. "We are giving the report due diligence and examining it point by point. We will have a full response late next week."
The governing board for FSA HS has until Dec. 14 to request a hearing.
Avossa said the recommendation to close FSA HS should not be seen as the system's stance on charter schools in general, despite the fact two charter schools will likely end their relationship with Fulton County in the two years of Avossa's tenure.
"The school board strongly supports charter schools as evidenced by the fact we have 12 charters that serve 10 percent of our students," said Avossa. "That makes Fulton County one of the most charter-friendly school systems in the state."
Charter schools are public schools that operate under a charter agreement with the local board of education. In exchange for some flexibility and waivers from local and state requirements, students are expected to perform as well, or better, than students in traditional schools.
This year, the Fulton County School System became the state's largest charter school system, which will allow all schools to seek waivers from the local school board and the state for increased flexibility.
In recommending the closing of the FSA HS, Avossa pointed to a number of issues at the school, centered on governance board activities, low enrollment and its practice of charging students hundreds of dollars to take core classes, which should be offered at no cost.
Avossa noted FSA High School has never connected with the community or lived up to its goal of being the feeder school for the FSA Middle School. Its current enrollment of just over 250 students is well below the projected enrollment of 450.
Recognizing the low enrollment as a concern, the Fulton School System made the unprecedented move a few years ago to include enrollment targets as part of the school's charter. The school opened in 2006 off Old Milton Parkway in Alpharetta. Despite some financial troubles during its first five years, the charter was renewed in 2011, with the stipulation the school could not fall below 80 percent of its target enrollment of 450 students.
That charter breach alone, noted school officials, is enough cause to close the school.
"We've had numerous issues with the school since 2007 and have given them many opportunities to try and improve their operations," said Avossa. "The governance board has had a long history of ineffective leadership and poor decision-making, which has led to many of the current issues."
He pointed to the default on a $19 million bond, which was taken out last year to finance the construction of a campus to eventually house the FSA elementary school (Fulton Sunshine Academy), FSA Middle and FSA High. After Fulton County revoked the charter for the middle school, plans for construction stopped and the loan went into default in June. How the remaining $10 million will be paid back is still in legal limbo.
FSA HS's Morgan acknowledged concerns at the school, but noted many of these were from past years with a different set of board members. The current board is relatively new, and committed to making positive changes.
"The current governing board has been working purposefully this year to implement improvements to the school in many areas that showed up in the FCSS report, including enrollment and governance," said Morgan. "We were excited and optimistic that our work would improve our enrollment and school in general. We are disappointed that the FCSS report does not reference this or anything beyond last July."
The termination process is beginning now to allow time for all seniors to graduate, and to allow underclassmen to make the transition to next year, said Avossa. Resources are being made available to support students with the closing of the high school.
Fulton School Board members were advised by Fulton legal staff to limit their comments regarding the FSA HS and its operations since they will be the "judge and jury" in the event the school asks for a hearing.
What's next for FSA HS?
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The Fulton Science Academy High School has two options after the decision by the Fulton County Board of Education to begin termination proceedings against the school.
1. FSA HS officials can accept the findings by the school system that inadequacies are sufficient to end the charter relationship with the school system, and close down at the end of the June 2013. If it chooses to do this, the school can apply to the state to become a state-sponsored charter school; or convert to a private school similar to its sister school, the FSA Middle School.
2. FSA HS school officials can request a hearing before the Fulton County Board of Education to challenge the termination, and submit its own findings for a reversal of the board's decision. If the FCBOE does not reverse its decision and continues with termination proceedings, FSA HS can appeal to the Georgia Department of Education. The state DOE has the final say on whether the school must close, as this is a termination of a charter, not a non-renewal. The decision to seek a hearing before the FCBOE must be submitted by Dec. 14.