NORTH FULTON, Ga. — The fate of the Fulton Science Academy High School now lies in the hands of the Georgia Board of Education, which will consider the Fulton County Board of Education’s decision to terminate the school’s charter.
Last week, the FCBOE voted unanimously to begin termination proceedings, following a four-hour hearing in which both sides presented their case. FSA HS officials say they are hopeful the state will step in to allow the school to continue as a public charter school.
“Obviously, we are very disappointed by the FCS Board decision,” said Randall Morgan, chairman of the governance board at FSA HS. “[Our] team presented clear and objective responses to refute each of the FCSS’s allegations, but they did not seem to consider any of the data.”
Fulton County Schools has until mid-January to petition the Georgia Board of Education of its desire to terminate the charter with FSA HS. At that point, the state board has two options: if neither party requests a hearing, the state BOE will vote based upon the information submitted by the parties; or if one of the parties requests a hearing, the state board will assign a hearing officer who will conduct a paper hearing and then make a recommendation to the board.
Louis J. Erste, charter schools division director for the GDOE, said the state board has terminated two charters in the past year and have three in process now.
Morgan said the Fulton School Board’s action was only a step in the process.
“The state BOE is the only entity that can actually end a charter,” said Morgan, who assumed the head of the FSA HS governing board in August. “We’re optimistic the state board will help keep this school option open for the students and parents of Fulton County.”
Earlier this month, Fulton Superintendent Robert Avossa recommended terminating the charter between the school and the Fulton County School System on the grounds of financial and operational deficiencies. The school is in the midst of its second five-year charter, and has two years remaining in its current term.
The school board approved proceeding with the termination, but granted the school a hearing last week to answer the allegations submitted by Fulton Schools staff. At issue is a 77-page audit conducted last summer that pointed out 22 areas of concern at FSA HS that support the decision to terminate the charter.
Fulton staff repeatedly pointed to a “downward spiral” at the school created mainly by low enrollment and lack of leadership. The school originally envisioned an enrollment of 650 students, and adjusted that goal to 350 when it applied for its second five-year charter in 2009. Currently, fewer than 250 students are enrolled.
FSA HS officials say the low enrollment is a direct result of bad publicity garnered by the closing of its sister school last year, the Fulton Science Academy Middle School. That school lost its charter with the Fulton School System, but reopened as a private middle school.
The issue of the default on a $19 million bond, taken out last year to build a K-12 campus for all three FSA entities, was center stage. After the FSA MS lost its charter, the bond went into default in May. About $10 million of the $19 million bond is still outstanding.
This week, Wells Fargo filed a civil suit against naming the FSA HS as one of three defendants in the lawsuit.
During the hearing, FSA HS officials repeatedly said the default process was nearing an end and there would be no financial responsibilities by the school. Morgan repeated that assertion this week with the filing of the civil suit.
“In simple terms, the suit is the final part of the process, which completely clears the high school,” said Morgan.
There was also considerable confusion as to whether FSA HS students paid for online classes, as has been widely alleged. What Fulton Schools staff found was that core classes were being offered at the school, but that 73 percent of students had to pay for remedial classes in order to receive credit for the course.
While this is standard practice in all public schools for students who fail a core course, the number of FSA students having to take remedial classes far exceeded the numbers at the traditional high schools in the area.
“Fulton County is paying the school to educate the student, while parents are paying vendors to educate their children,” said Laura Stowell, who oversees charter schools for Fulton Schools.