Time to put students first in FSA debacle

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Well it is a fine mess we have with the Fulton Science Academy, a charter middle school having won top academic accolades including that of a Blue Ribbon Charter School, but no longer possessing a Fulton County Schools System charter.

It is obvious there is plenty of blame on the table for everyone to take a generous portion. The FSA Board of Directors has known for over a year exactly what the Fulton Schools System was demanding. But the FSA let other matters at hand cloud its judgment.

Its master plan had always been to create a seamless education stream kindergarten through 12th grade with its two sister schools, Fulton Science Academy High School and the Fulton Sunshine Academy elementary school.

And plans were going swimmingly, having secured the property and an $18 million construction bond to build that seamless K-12 charter school. But there were some chinks in the plan. As I understand it, FSA said it needed a 10-year charter to improve its bond rating on that big loan.

Problem is, Fulton County Schools has never awarded a charter longer than five years except for one special case in Hapeville, because it was tied to a technical training school. So the FSA board decided to play hardball with the Fulton Schools administration and never submitted the disputed paperwork Fulton Schools was demanding.

The FSA board thought it deserved a longer charter because of student performance and that longer charter would strengthen the schools’ bond worthiness.

The upshot was the FSA got into a catfight with the Board of Education that somehow FSA failed to see it could not win.

They left the Board of Education with a choice of giving in or letting the FSA fail. Not surprisingly, the Board of Education chose the latter course.

Now parents have rallied to the FSA board’s side along with the entire North Fulton legislative delegation asking the Board of Education to reconsider.

What surprises me is no one is calling for the resignation of the FSA board.

This board has failed in its most basic tenet, that of ensuring the school kept its charter and kept its doors open. Now that board’s calculated inaction has jeopardized the hard work of FSA parents, teachers and students, it has jeopardized its sister schools who, I am told, are on the hook for this $18 million loan. The two remaining schools may not have the means to pay with FSA’s doors closed for a year. This is the sin of hubris.

But now that the Board of Education has shown FSA who is boss, it would behoove the BOE to rethink its hard-line policy to deny the FSA another chance. The FSA board, suitably chastened, has agreed to do it the way Fulton County Schools wants it done.

As noted before, there are also private investors who have backed these $18 million bonds, and two other well performing charter schools may now be at risk.

The Board of Education has already shown it is willing to make special dispensations to the Hapeville charter school because it was in everybody’s best interest.

Surely, the future of three charter schools and the investors who have backed the new construction can be granted a similar special dispensation that will keep its doors open. After the train wreck, FSA effusively said the school was ready to comply completely with Fulton School’s policy on their charter. Why not give the school another chance to come into compliance?

This is no time for Fulton County Schools and the Board of Education to remain hard-nosed. This is a charter school that has brought national attention to good things being done in the name of local education. And this is at a time when other school systems in the state have made Georgia a national laughingstock.

I know the Board of Education and its administrators have the interests of 90,000 students to watch over, not just the 500 or so at one little charter school. But the folks who support this school and its sister institutions are working hard to provide an alternative path to education that has met Fulton County standards admirably.

As we have already seen in the Hapeville charter school, Fulton Schools does make exceptions to charter school policy where it makes sense. That is the kind of flexibility we want from school boards.

Instead, the Board of Education seems to be saying, “It’s not our fault. Oh well.” It is not the assessment of blame we are looking at. The question is how to solve this problem, and passing the buck is not a solution.

We have to look beyond all the finger-pointing and gnashing of teeth to see what can be done to save the situation.

I am already tired of hearing about “board policy,” because what is needed now is for the Board of Education to show some of that flexibility it showed with the Hapeville school. The precedent is there. So, be the cavalry to the rescue.

The effects go beyond just what happens to these three charter schools, their students and their investors. Already in the dog-eat-dog world of economic development, corporate locators in places like Charlotte, Plano, Texas and Houston are whispering to corporate location scouts how dysfunctional our metro area education is. Why, we even close Blue Ribbon schools.

This will cost millions in economic development that might well have come here.

I think it would be a good thing, a great thing, if the Board of Education could declare this an extraordinary situation (which it is) and sit down with the FSA board and probably some bond attorneys to patch this up. Only good could come of it, and only bad if nothing is done.

FSA, charter, system