With the 2014 Georgia General Assembly under way, six sets of eyes are fixed on three numbers — 327.
Forsyth County’s school superintendent and board of education are watching House Bill 327 in hopes the measure passes the Senate this year.
The bill, known as the “Flexibility and Accountability Act for Student Achievement,” cleared the House last year in a 174-1 vote, but failed to make it out of committee in the Senate.
Ann Crow, a member of the local school board, doesn’t want it to stall again this session. With all the changes in education, and more proposed for 2015, she said the measure is the best solution to “leave us alone to operate with all the flexibility we need to be successful.”
“My concern is that it will get so bogged down in politics that the right solution to help all the school districts will not be realized,” Crow said.
The solution to which she refers was included in HB 327, which District 25 state Rep. Mike Dudgeon authored to help successful schools maintain flexibility from state mandates.
“When we did our education listening sessions all over the state, after money by far the No. 2 most -requested item from superintendents and boards across the state was to have some action on flexibility,” he said. “Blanket waivers on class size and expenditures will expire in 2015, which if that actually happened would put a great many systems essentially bankrupt or in really terrible conditions.”
If the bill falters, school systems will have two choices in 2015 — maintain status quo, but relinquish flexibility on spending and class sizes that came during the budget cuts of previous years; or become a charter school system under a 2007 bill authored by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
Charter systems are free from all state and some federal mandates, giving local control to the districts in exchange for increased accountability.
Several school districts have become charter systems, including neighboring Fulton County, as well as Decatur and Marietta. It’s a distinction that appears to have worked well for them.
However, Crow said a charter setup likely wouldn’t work in Forsyth because each school would have to be operated separately.
The county’s schools undergo frequent redistricting, she said, which would mean charter committee members could shift to different schools. That could also jeopardize regular communications and partnerships between schools, parents and businesses.
Creating division between close-knit schools would not work in Forsyth, she said.
“A solution has got to be made for the rest of the 100-plus districts that don’t want to change to a charter system,” Crow said.
Charter systems may work well for some areas, but they shouldn’t be the only option, according to Crow.
That’s why Dudgeon, a former member of the local school board, ensured HB 327 carries a third option that would give flexibility in exchange for accountability to high performing school systems like Forsyth.
They wouldn’t have to become charter systems, as long as all schools earn a rating of at least 80 or demonstrate significant improvement in testing.
“I like charter systems. And I think they’re good for several places,” Dudgeon said. “But we have to come up with a plan that hopefully does provide more flexibility options, but at the same time respects the importance of the charter system concept.
“We’re trying to get in negotiations with the Senate to where we can keep that ... but it’s definitely a tough negotiation. There are some strong differences of opinion inside the legislature.”
There are also strong opinions on Forsyth’s school board, which recently passed a resolution asking District 27 state Sen. Jack Murphy to support the measure.
Murphy said he’s had a meeting with Cagle’s office to get up to speed on the matter.
“There’s no question the lieutenant governor is in favor of charter systems and I am too,” Murphy said. “But I don’t think that is the total holdup on it. I think the lieutenant governor is looking at it now from a different viewpoint and I think they will hammer out some kind of agreement.
“But the lieutenant governor feels there needs to be a contract on there regardless and, No. 2, there needs to be accountability toward the contract, similar to IE2 but not quite like it.
“They’re willing to negotiate with the House on it and I think we’ll do that.”
The IE2, or Investing in Education Excellence, contract is how Forsyth has managed to attain its current levels of flexibility from state mandates. The five-year contract is set to expire before the 2015-16 school year.
The system has the option of signing another IE2 contract. However, Crow noted the accountability factor would have to change, since the district performs so well there’s no way to meet the existing improvement requirements.
“Unless it’s rewritten, it’s not going to work for us because we’re at such a high level of achievement ... there’s nowhere for us to go,” she said. “In some levels, we’re as high as we can go.”
Though the bill appeared dead on arrival at the Senate in 2013, Murphy said there’s strong likelihood something can be negotiated.
“We need something done on it before 2015 because it really affects school systems,” he said. “So if we come to an agreement on it, they need time to prepare and plan. This needs to be addressed.”