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CCAT charter approval stirs controversy
Bulloch superintendent: State taking funds is unconstitutional
W Holloway for Web
Dr. Lewis Holloway
      The principal of the Charter Conservatory for Arts and Technology was both happy and cautious following a decision last week by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission to approve CCAT as one of the state's first two charter commission schools.
      "It was an exciting day; an historic day," said Kathy Harwood, the Northside Drive school's principal and a co-founder. "We welcome the commission's decision, but we won't budget any more funds until we actually have it. We know an effort to halt the funds is likely coming."
      The decision means CCAT will be eligible for about $500,000 in additional funding, an increase of 83 percent over the school's $600,000 budget for the 2008-09 school year, Harwood said. The extra $500,000 for CCAT, however, will be subtracted from the total state funding given to the Bulloch County School System, which has Superintendent Lewis Holloway talking about a possible lawsuit.
      "I believe taking local taxpayer money from control of our local school board violates Georgia's constitution," Holloway said. "Right now, I understand we can appeal the decision to the state school board. If the appeal fails, ultimately, it is our school board's decision to proceed with a lawsuit or not. But I believe it's unconstitutional."
      The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was formed in 2008 after the state legislature authorized its creation. It reviewed applications Thursday in Atlanta from CCAT and two other schools, approving charter commission status for CCAT and an all girls charter school in Gwinnett County.
      Andrew Lewis, chief programming officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday that state-chartered schools run on "about half the funding" of other schools within their districts but face the same obligations.
      "These are public school students," Lewis said in the Journal-Constitution. "To undermine their ability to receive all opportunities to succeed that their fellow students in the local district receive is taking away from the school's ability to provide an appropriate education."
      The Georgia Charter Schools Commission has the authority to approve charters and also add local education dollars to their funding streams.
      The state Department of Education would calculate the local property tax share "and then they would deduct that amount from the district's state allotment," Andrew Broy, the state associate superintendent in charge of charter schools, said in the Journal-Constitution.
      Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia Schools Superintendent Association, said the commission was set up to circumvent local school board control over taxpayer money.
      "I want to be clear that our objections have nothing to do with should charter schools receive more funding from the state," Garrett said. "No matter how you look at it, the commission is playing a shell game with the funding. It is taking money already budgeted by a school district - in this case Bulloch and Gwinnett counties - and reallocating it without approval from the local agencies. The state constitution is quite clear about this. The Bulloch school board has control over the taxes it levies. The state does not have that authority."
      CCAT currently receives between $4,000 and $4,500 per pupil from the state. With local dollars added to its budget, the school could get between $7,800 and $8,500 per student.
      Harwood said she understands the logic behind the unconstitutional argument, but she said that ignores the larger picture in public education.
      "Shouldn't money for public schools follow the child?" Harwood said. "We are a public school and I believe we've been good stewards of public money. We have a 94 percent graduation rate and many of our children go on to college."
      CCAT was granted its charter in May of 2001 by the state, though it was denied charter status in Bulloch County by the school board, which meant it did not receive full local funding. The school occupies the old Farm and Country store building on Northside Drive in Statesboro. Harwood said CCAT is ruled by a governing board of five parents, three teachers, and one community member, and must meet the educational requirements of every public school.
      The school had 135 students for the 2008-09 year in grades 6 through 12, including two from outside Bulloch County. Harwood said the charter mandates no more than 25 students per grade with a school capacity of 175.
      CCAT has 12 full-time and three part-time faculty, a school nurse, a counselor, graduation coach, a school custodian, a receptionist and a business manager.
      Harwood said public misperceptions about CCAT run the gamut: Some think it is for special education students; some think it is a vocational school; and some think it is a school only for the gifted and talented.
      "We are a school of choice; we are open to anybody who would like to attend. But I would say we are not a school for everybody," Harwood said. "We just believe in teaching a different way. Coming to our school is not always the best choice for all students."
      If CCAT ultimately receives the $500,000 in funding, Harwood said the school would concentrate spending the additional monies in two areas: adding teachers and improving technology.
      "We get a lot of work done on the backs of our teachers, but we need more help," she said. "We've survived with old computers, but it would be nice to have faster machines."
      Holloway said the board will begin discussing contingency plans next week about what to cut if $500,000 is taken out of the budget. He's confident, however, the county will appeal the commission's decision to the state school board and he believes they have a good case.
      "If you look at the Charter Schools Commission report, the evaluation team recommended denying charter status (to CCAT)," Holloway said.
      Harwood said she knew the review process would be difficult and heading into Thursday's hearing she wasn't sure what the commission would do.
      "I'm pleased they looked beyond state standards alone," Harwood said. "They took a different perspective in reviewing our school and looked for other indicators like graduation rates."

Roger Allen contributed to this story.

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