For now, the Bulloch County Schools probably won't become a "charter system," in which every school becomes self-governing and sets its own student achievement goals.
Instead, Superintendent Charles Wilson is recommending another option, called "Investing in Educational Excellence," or IE2, where decisions for all 15 schools would continue to be made at the county level. Becoming an IE2 system will require that the schools meet their goals three years out of five or face consequences. Choosing one of these so-called flexibility options allows school districts to receive waivers from state rules, including limits on class sizes.
"You're taking on accountability to get autonomy," Wilson told the Board of Education during Thursday night's meeting.
He said charter systems are a great "concept" but suggested the local schools are not ready to take the leap.
"The closer we can get parents involved and the more comprehensive, cohesive governance we can have at a school level, working with the superintendent and the board, I think that is the utopian situation," Wilson said. "But I'm also a realist in realizing we have a long way to go to be able to make that work."
School systems face a June 30 deadline to have a plan in place. That comes with state suggestions that school districts allow six months for the application process, but also official hints that there will be waivers for those that at least make a choice.
Meanwhile, uncertainties remain about how charter systems will work. Targets and rules keep changing, Wilson reported. Previously, even less was known about IE2, but much more information has become available in the past six weeks, he said.
The IE2 process will offer stability and fits with the strategic plan the Bulloch County Schools developed "as a school system ... trying to work in unison" last year, he said.
"IE2 is the one we know we can grab onto," Wilson told the board. "We have a timeline ticking on us, and it makes sense. It doesn't mean we can't move toward the charter system in the future if that's where we want to go. It doesn't mean that we can't provide individual autonomy to different schools under our IE2 concept."
The board has yet to vote, but some members indicated support, and none voiced opposition.
A mandated choice
Under a 2008 Georgia law, as given teeth by State Board of Education rule making, school systems must choose one of the flexibility options if they want to continue receiving any waivers from state rules beyond June 30, 2015. They can choose a "status quo" path of neither option, but that returns a school system to requirements such as class-size limits and fewer school days, with no additional state funding.
IE2 requires a five-year contract between the local board and the state board. The school system must set targets for the performance of each school every year.
The targets are based in the state's College and Career Ready Performance Index. The index includes scores from the new Georgia Milestones tests, but also incorporates measures of things such as graduation rates, attendance, parent involvement, teacher effectiveness and the percentage of students who complete certain courses.
Schools that perform in the top quartile need only stay in the top bracket while working to improve. Those that score lower will need to make annual progress targets.
Consequences for not meeting targets range from remedial action plans and increased staff training to replacement of principals and teachers, conversion of a school to charter status, or its assignment to a different school system or a private organization to run.
Waivers available to IE2 systems could potentially exempt them from a variety of regulations. The "big four" areas for waivers are class size, expenditure control, faculty and staff certification and salary schedules, according to a Georgia Department of Education summary Wilson presented as a slide show.
In an interview, Wilson said his thinking on the issue isn't driven by the funding considerations, but by a belief that schools can perform better with more leeway for local decisions.
"Status quo represents being in the box of all the constraints that have accumulated and been piled up upon public education," he said, "and if you look at the data across the state, that has not worked for our students. IE2 and charter options offer flexibility to do business differently."
However, not choosing a flexibility option would also mean that, after June 30, 2015, Bulloch County would have to hire more teachers to restore all classes to state-mandated sizes.
As part of budget cutting measures since the 2008 recession, Bulloch County's school system has taken advantage of class-size waivers while reducing its workforce - including support staff as well as teachers - by 102 positions. Although the Bulloch schools are receiving $4 million more in state funding this year than last, the funding remains $4.3 million less than it would be if the Legislature and governor fully restored school funding under the long-established Quality Basic Education formula.
While the IE2 system's financial incentives are limited to waivers on class sizes and spending requirements, charter systems are expected to receive $80 to $90 supplemental funding each year, according to the Department of Education. However, this is not guaranteed but is subject to the Legislature's budgeting decisions.
Board member Mike Sparks asked Wilson whether the flexibility options could be affected by the political situation. State School Superintendent John Barge will be replaced by a successor elected Nov. 4, and Gov. Nathan Deal is in a close race with challenger Jason Carter.
Noting that the options are set in state law, Wilson said any major changes would probably take two to four years to take effect.
He plans to ask the board to vote Nov. 6 on a letter of intent to start the IE2 application process. A pubic hearing is required and is slated for February.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.