On the recommendation of Superintendent Charles Wilson, the Bulloch County Board of Education is pursuing a "flexibility option" that is a middle course between the status quo and creating a charter school system.
All eight board members were present for last Thursday's meeting, but one abstained, making the vote 7-0 to go the "Investing in Educational Excellence" route, nicknamed IE2 or "IE Squared." Over time, the Bulloch County Schools may evolve more school-level governance, with each school setting its own student achievement goals and deciding, with parent input, how to go about meeting them, Wilson said.
"What I see is this IE Squared approach being the transition approach toward a voluntary application of charter system," he said.
But just last year the Bulloch County Schools, with community input, drew up a strategic plan with goals and objectives, and Wilson noted that these are for the entire system, "going in one direction."
With a June 30 state deadline for districts to propose a detailed flexibility option plan to the State Board of Education, the IE2 approach becomes the safer route, Wilson said.
"It's my job, ultimately, to keep us moving, but to determine what the bridge can bear, and as we watch this and more information has become available, my concern is that rushing the bridge may not be the best thing," he said.
The state has proposed additional funding for districts that become charter districts, but the amount is uncertain, as Wilson had previously noted. A Sept. 14 Georgia Department of Education slideshow comparing the options refers to "possible $80-$90 per pupil" supplemental funding. The slideshow is available on the school system's website, www.bulloch.k12.ga.us.
Added funding will not be available under the IE2 option, but the school system will be able to get specific, requested waivers from rules that limit how it can spend the state funding it does receive. Charter systems are supposed to receive a general waiver from these regulations.
Much remains uncertain about both options.
"I'm having to read a lot between the lines, as is every other superintendent in the state of Georgia," Wilson said.
June 30 deadline
A Georgia law updated in 2010 set out the choice of becoming a charter system or an Investing in Educational Excellence system as options for Georgia school districts.
Defining these required further work by the Georgia Department of Education and the state board. The department has made June 30, 2015, the deadline for school districts to choose one of the flexibility options or face a cutoff of rule waivers. One such waiver has allowed the Bulloch County Schools to operate with some larger-than-normal class sizes — more students per teacher — for six consecutive years.
In applying for IE2, the Bulloch County Schools will need to request specific waivers, which could include leeway on other spending controls, teacher certification, salary levels or other requirements, in addition to the expected request to continue the class size exemption.
The Bulloch County Schools will use their local strategic plan to guide their IE2 proposal and the waiver requests, Wilson said.
Wilson reiterated that he believes state regulation has grown burdensome and even contradictory and that reducing it through waivers or charter status can help schools by allowing them to be innovative.
But he acknowledged that the waivers provide financial motivation for not remaining "status quo," which would mean returning to the pre-waiver rules and hiring more teachers at local expense.
"I just don't think that this board wants to be in a situation that on June 30 those waivers are going to expire and we're going to turn to the Bulloch County taxpayers with, ‘We've got to come up with more money to keep doing things the same way we've always done them,'" Wilson said.
The push toward decentralized planning ultimately makes the total that Bulloch County spends per child on education a local decision, he added later, calling this "a conversation that needs to happen."
Board member Anshul Jain said she was troubled by the state insisting on the flexibility option decision while providing so little information and when so many other changes are taking place.
Although Georgia adopted the Common Core State Standards — known in Georgia as the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards — three years ago, the schools are still adjusting to them, and this year the state is implementing the new Georgia Milestones tests, replacing the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.
Jain also observed that the flexibility options are not shared with other states.
"What is it that we're hoping to achieve and accomplish that other states are not, because we adopted Common Core because we wanted to achieve consistency across all the states, yet we don't want to achieve consistency within the state of Georgia?" she asked.
Jain said she had a very difficult time voting on the choice, "but since we have to, I understand your recommendation," she told Wilson.
Board member Steve Hein suggested that the state has not provided clear direction because "there is no right answer." Both options are new, so there is little data on how well they work, he said.
The motion, from Mike Herndon seconded by Hein, was to notify the state Department of Education that the Bulloch schools will pursue IE2 status.
This involves withdrawing a letter of intent, which Wilson sent earlier this year, for the school district to become a charter system.
The motion passed on a voice vote. Not all members spoke up to say "yes," but none voted "no." Afterward, Vernon Littles said he abstained because he did not have enough information to feel comfortable voting in favor but did not feel strongly enough about this to oppose.
"It's kind of a tough decision any way you go," Littles said. "At the end of the day, we want what's best for our students."
Littles, representing District 5, and Jain, from District 6, will leave the board at year's end. They lost in the May 20 election to members-elect Glennera Martin and Jimmy "Jay" Cook Jr., respectively.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.