Charter schools offer more questions than answers

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The average North Fulton resident does not even notice the difference between a charter school and a public school. That is because there should not fundamentally be any difference.

Charter schools are public schools, but with their own special way of teaching or emphasis. The Fulton Science Academy Middle School has been in the newspapers for some time, because there has been a difference of opinion in just how much like other schools a charter school should be.

FSA Middle School has won state and national academic accolades for its students over the last 10 years, but it became apparent that the school officials thought that gave them leverage to negotiate with the Fulton Board of Education. Heretofore, FSA had to renew its charter every five years. Now FSA wanted, among other things, to be granted a 10-year charter. The Board of Education was not in a position to negotiate, even if it wanted to do so. The State Board of Education made it clear to local BOEs that it wanted shorter charter renewals, not longer ones.

It was a gross failure to communicate. Perhaps the biggest mistake for FSA was it never seemed to grasp the fact that county and state bureaucracies don’t negotiate. Where would they be if they did?

Now, the FSA Middle School has lost its charter and is scrambling to become a private school. That may be the best solution in the long run. But in the smoldering ruins of recriminations and accusations, a number of disturbing questions have arisen, at least for me.

Let’s start with the big one. I don’t believe when the charter schools were created, it was ever envisioned they would become a board of education within a county board of education. The FSA was poised to have students who went from kindergarten through 12th grade in charter schools that FSA would build through bonds it floated and paid for by Fulton County taxpayers.

This to me is classic tail wanting to wag the dog. When we put up our hard-earned tax dollars, it is with the understanding that the scrutiny will be sharp, the need will be spelled out and we will get to vote on it.

Now there is a $19 million bond issue floated, signed, sealed and delivered, and who was consulted? The Georgia Department of Education was not. The Fulton Board of Education was not. And the Fulton taxpayer was not.

I know the FSA supporters say the schools have earned the right through their accomplishments. But the answer to that is no. FSA, nor any other charter school, has not earned the right to dictate, has not earned the right to make demands and has not earned the right to spend tax dollars they way it wants.

Now several questions are up in the air. Who is on the hook for the $19 million bond? More than $5 million has already been spent for a school that may never be built. And then, there is $700,000 the FSA Middle School had set aside as an “emergency fund.”

Apparently, that emergency fund was used as part of fundraising by the school and parents to show the State Board of Education it would be financially stable if the middle school had to get by with a state charter and not receive the county portion of support in 2012-13.

I hope the FSA Board realizes that as a private school it will have to return county and state money to those respective funds. It will be a tangle, and I don’t expect these issues to be sorted out without a lot of grief.

But if we have this much heartburn over one charter school, what will happen if we pass the state constitutional change to allow charter schools to come under state control and Georgia starts letting them get built willy-nilly over the state?

The old rule of thumb for legislators states that legislation made in haste can be regretted at one’s leisure. I think we need to hear a lot more about charter schools, who will build them and who will run them before we open the floodgates.