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Bulloch School System plans to file CCAT lawsuit next week

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Posted: September 19, 2009 4:19 p.m.
Updated: September 19, 2009 4:15 p.m.
       Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Dr. Lewis Holloway said Friday he expects the system will file a lawsuit next week against a state law that created a state charter school commission.
       "We're going over the final draft today (Friday) and I anticipate moving forward with the suit next week," Holloway said.
       In June, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission approved Statesboro's Charter Conservatory for Arts and Technology as one of the state's first two charter commission schools. The other is the Ivy Preparatory Academy in Gwinnett County, just north of Atlanta. The decision meant CCAT was eligible for about $367,000 in additional funding each year.
       But the extra $367,000 for CCAT is subtracted from the total state funding given to the Bulloch School System.
       The state gave the first $30,500 monthly payment to CCAT in August. The Bulloch County lawsuit alleges the school district is being illegally forced to fund CCAT and the state's actions violate Georgia's constitution. The suit argues the Charter Schools Commission is, in effect, creating an independent school system, which is prohibited by the state constitution.
       Charter school principal Dr. Kathy Harwood, however, said state legislators and the Georgia Charter Schools Commission studied the law very carefully prior to creating the commission.
      "We're confident the charter commission was set up in such a way that it meets Georgia constitutional requirements to distribute funds to approved charter schools like us," Harwood said. "That said, we still are taking a conservative approach moving forward in making plans for the additional funding. We have learned to make do the best we can without since we were founded."
      CCAT was granted its charter in May of 2001 by the state, but it was denied charter status in Bulloch County by the school board, which meant it did not receive full local funding.
      Harwood said the first state payment was used to increase compensation for CCAT teachers.
       "We want to reward the people who have done the hard work over the years," she said. "We have some long range plans, but we will wait."
      Holloway said Bulloch likely will join a lawsuit filed last week by the Gwinnett County School System in Fulton County Superior Court. It is the first legal challenge to the 2008 law establishing the independent Georgia Charter Schools Commission.
      Under that law, groups seeking to start charter schools can gain approval even if they've been denied backing by their local district.
      Bulloch School Board attorney Susan Cox is handling the case and will file the suit. Holloway said the school system spent $53,000 in attorney fees last year and has budgeted $80,000 for the 2009-2010 school year.
      "As the case moves forward, we will monitor the legal fees," he said. "I will keep the Board apprised. I don't anticipate it, but we are required by state law to go back to the board if we exceed a budgeted item by more than 10 percent. I don't think that will be necessary."
       Cox and Holloway said the suit would ask a judge to put the $30,500 monthly funding into escrow until the case is decided. Holloway said the funding will come out of the system's reserve fund balance and the school system should not see any additional changes this year.
       Jim Lo Bue is chairman of the Charter Conservatory's 10-member Governing Board. He, too, believes the powers given the Charter Schools Commission will withstand a constitutional challenge.
       "The funds the Charter Commission controls are separate," Lo Bue said.
       Lo Bue, who currently has one daughter enrolled at CCAT and another who graduated, said the Charter Conservatory, which has 132 students enrolled this school year, provides a valuable and necessary alternative to a mainstream public school.
       "We are a public school that gives parents and their children some choices," he said. "Charter schools are a size that allow for a way to experiment with education - to truly implement best practices of education methods. By necessity, large school systems like Bulloch operate from the top down. We operate from the students on up."
       Lo Bue, who is an associate professor of chemistry at Georgia Southern, acknowledged the school on Northside Drive still struggles with perception problems in the Statesboro community.
       "One drawback is some still think we are a private school," Lo Bue said. "Another is the physical appearance of our school. If you drive by and know nothing about the school, you can get the idea it's a make shift, fly-by-night affair. But any time we get people to come inside and learn a little about us, the perception changes pretty quickly."
       Lo Bue also said CCAT students deserve equal funding with all other public school students in Bulloch County.
       "I pay taxes," he said. "All our families do. The $367,000 in dispute is less than half of one percent of Bulloch's $73-million school budget. I understand the superintendent and school board don't like losing direct control of the funds, but the Charter students have earned it and deserve it."

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