0

Pataula an example of school battle

Pataula Charter Academy third grade teacher Heather Worsley instructs her students on Thursday in Edison. Pataula officials are in favor of HR 1162 while most local school boards oppose it. The resolution, if passed by the Senate, would give voters a chance to make it an amendment to the state constitution. It would allow the state to establish charter schools without approval of local school boards.

Pataula Charter Academy third grade teacher Heather Worsley instructs her students on Thursday in Edison. Pataula officials are in favor of HR 1162 while most local school boards oppose it. The resolution, if passed by the Senate, would give voters a chance to make it an amendment to the state constitution. It would allow the state to establish charter schools without approval of local school boards.

EDISON -- As State Highway 37 West winds its way into Edison, it's hard not to notice the irony. On one side of the road sits the Pataula Charter Academy. Directly across the road from it sits Calhoun County High School.

Pataula and the Calhoun County School System could represent the face of the current battle in the state Legislature over House Resolution 1162 -- a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Georgia Charter School Commission (GCSC) the power to create charter schools in a school district without the approval of a local school board.

Pataula, which draws students from Baker, Clay, Calhoun, Randolph and Early counties, came into existence in August 2010 when the state commission granted the school a charter against the wishes of those counties' respective school boards.

Nine months later, by a 4-3 vote, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled local school boards have the sole authority to fund and open public charter schools.

Georgia has 170 charter schools -- with 65,000 students enrolled -- that are mostly unaffected by the ruling because they opened with the approval of their respective local school boards' approval.

Pataula got in just under the wire. It was operating before the Supreme Court ruling.

Its current enrollment is nearly 300 students (kindergarten through 7th grade), with 118 coming from Calhoun, 101 from Randolph, 28 from Clay, 24 from Early and 12 from Baker, making Pataula's five-county enrollment area the largest among the state's charter schools.

"If all 118 of the Calhoun County students that are enrolled in Pataula returned to us, it would mean an extra one-half millon dollars per year to our school system," Calhoun County School Superintendent Danny Ellis said.

At stake are millions of dollars in state money, which is disbursed based on FTE (Full Time Enrollment) numbers. When a student moves to a charter school, that money follows the student.

This is where HR 1162 comes in.

Approved by the House last month, the resolution is currently awaiting action by the Senate. If passed by a two-thirds or better majority in the Senate and then by a simple majority in a referendum by state voters, the proposed constitutional amendment would empower the Legislature to create special schools without local board approval.

"We need 1162 as protection from local school boards and also to protect our very existence," Pataula Principal Kylie Holley said.

Not surprisingly, Ellis is sitting firmly on the other side of the fence.

"HR 1162 is not about school choice; it is about who pays for the choice of others. Until the sponsors of the bill can give specific written details for financing both charter schools and regular public schools equitably, the resolution should not pass.," Ellis said. "Since 2008, the Calhoun County School System has lost nearly 20 percent in state funding. As a result of these losses, we currently have 10 furloughs days, larger class sizes, and less funds to offer additional help for struggling students."

Holley says House Bill 797 (which accompanies HR 1162) would address those funding issues.

In addition to battling the area's school boards, Holley says dealing with rumors also is difficult.

"School teachers have been told that we are the reason they are being furloughed," Holley said. "Property owners are being told their taxes are going to be raised. It's one thing after another."

Pataula currently has 14 certified teachers, one full-time special education and one full-time Title I teacher on staff. The charter school school spends an average of $4,900 per pupil and plans no teacher furlough days.

"We pay the state (teacher) scale," Holley said.

By contrast, the Calhoun County School System spends an average of $8,800 per student in its 635-student system and is waiting to see what happens in the Legislature before deciding on possible teacher furlough days.

One thing is certain, HR 1162 will go a long way in determining the future of state charter schools like Pataula and school systems like Calhoun County.

"Our students deserve the best education possible, regardless of race and socio-economic background," Ellis said, "and we will continue to oppose any legislation that deprives them of this basic constitutional right."