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Despite a Georgia Supreme Court decision announced Monday that would cost the Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology about $300,000 per year in state funding, the Statesboro school's assistant director remains optimistic about CCAT's future.
"We've always operated on a shoestring budget even after we started receiving the extra funds, and we will continue to do so if that funding goes away," said Corliss Reese, who has worked at CCAT for five years. "We have great students and teachers. Our bank account may change, but our teaching and commitment won't."
The state's top court struck down a Georgia law that cleared the way for a surge in new state-approved charter schools. The court's 4-3 decision overturned the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which allowed the state to approve and fund charter schools over the objection of local school boards.
The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was formed in 2008 after the legislature authorized its creation. CCAT was one of the first two schools in the state that received charter commission status in June 2009 along with an all girls charter school in Gwinnett County.
Later the same year, Bulloch County joined Gwinnett in a lawsuit arguing the charter commission had no authority under the state constitution to allocate local taxpayer funds. Monday's court decision held that only local boards of educations have the power to fund and open public schools.
"We do not in any manner denigrate the goals and aspirations that these efforts reflect. The goals are laudable," wrote Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. "The method used to attain those goals, however, is clearly and palpably unconstitutional."
The decision bars the commission from creating any new charter schools, but left unclear is the fate of the 14 charter schools that have already started offering classes. The schools, scattered around the state, are designed to eventually serve about 15,000 students.
A dissent written by Justice David Nahmias said the ruling could also abolish "any other 'special school' the General Assembly might dare to create."
"Today four judges have wiped away a small but important effort to improve public education in Georgia - an effort that reflects not only the education policy of this state's elected representatives but also the national education policy of the Obama Administration," he wrote.
Dr. Lewis Holloway, superintendent for Bulloch County schools, said "the court reached the correct decision. In my mind, really, the only decision."
"We argued taking local taxpayer money from control of our local school board violated Georgia's constitution," Holloway said. "It's cut and dried what the state constitution says."
CCAT was first granted its charter in May 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. It is governed by a board of five parents, three teachers, and one community member, and must meet the educational requirements of public schools.
Reese said the school has 140 students for the 2010-11 year in grades 6 through 12, including two from outside Bulloch County. CCAT's charter mandates no more than 25 students per grade with a school capacity of 175.
Prior to receiving the extra funding in 2009, the Charter Conservatory received about $4,000 per pupil from the state, which was increased by $2,500 per student with the additional $300,000.
Kathy Harwood, CCAT's director and co-founder, said public misperceptions about the school 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."
Praise for CCAT
Paul Jones, chairman of CCAT's governing board, said the board would meet Monday night to discuss any future actions.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed in the ruling and I don't think a 4-3 decision lends support to the majority opinion's contention the charter commission is ‘clearly and palpably unconstitutional," said Jones, who is a process engineer at Viracon and has a son attending the school. "That said, we'll see how we as a board can help the school going forward. All avenues will be looked at."
Georgia Southern University professor Jim Lo Bue, whose daughter will graduate from CCAT this year and whose son graduated four years ago, praised the school.
"Charter schools allow teachers and administrators to get away from the status quo of a huge system," said Lo Bue, who served as chairman of the governing board in 2009. "Charter schools are intrinsically small, which means kids don't get lost because teachers know them on a much more personal level. Teachers know everybody.
"Also, there is a singular lack of social impediments," he said. "No matter how they are, kids don't get picked on. The social climate is much more conducive to creating an atmosphere of a place where kids really want to go to every day. It was a great place for our children."
Jones said CCAT offers a chance for parents to look at alternative learning situations for their children.
"The charter school not only assesses a child's ability to learn, but how they learn and comes up with an almost individual plan to give every child the best opportunity to learn," he said.
Creation of Charter
Since 1995, local school districts have created dozens of charter schools, which get public support but aren't subject to many regulations that apply to conventional public schools. The state commission was created in 2008 by state lawmakers who said they were upset that local school boards were rejecting charter petitions because they didn't like the competition.
The legislation sparked a revolt by school districts which filed a lawsuit a year later claiming the commission violated state law by unfairly taking funding away from the districts and giving it to charter schools. They claimed the commission was actually taking local tax dollars without the approval of local taxpayers.
The charter schools' supporters countered by arguing the commission was designed to re-direct state - not local - funding to help keep the schools afloat. The commission's attorneys argued in court that no funding from a local district was going to a school that was funded over the law.
The law's supporters won the first legal showdown in May 2010, when a Fulton County judge ruled from the bench that the commission was constitutional and didn't break any laws. But Monday's ruling, joined by Justices Robert Benham, Hugh Thompson and Harris Hines, was a blow to charter school supporters.
Authority over schools
It found that the Georgia Constitution grants only county and area education boards the explicit authority to create and maintain public schools. The law, it said, is designed to limit authority over public education to "that level of government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated."
"Commission charter schools thus necessarily operate in competition with or duplicate the efforts of locally controlled general K-12 schools by enrolling the same types of K-12 students who attend locally controlled schools and by teaching them the same subjects that may be taught at locally controlled schools," the opinion said.
The challenge was filed by school district officials eager to rein in the commission's scope. The districts in the lawsuit are among the state's largest - Gwinnett County, DeKalb County and Atlanta Public Schools - along with four smaller districts: Bulloch, Henry, Candler and Griffin-Spalding schools. At least 37 other districts have signed on to support the challenge.
Critics of the decision said it was too broad and illogical. Nahmias, who was joined by Justices George Carley and Harold Melton in the dissent, said judges should only strike down education rules in very rare instances, and argued that litigation is ill-suited to foster the nuanced decisions required for good social policy.
"That result is unnecessary, and it is unfortunate for Georgia's children, particularly those already enrolled and thriving in state charter schools," he wrote.
Reese said students took the news hard about the court decision, and some were fearful the school would shut down.
"That's a natural reaction at first, but we reassured them we're not going anywhere," he said. "We're fighters here."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
James Healy can be reached at (912) 489-9402.