Education

School systems must chart their future in coming months

Every school system in Georgia has a big decision to make in the coming months.

By June 30, each of them must pick one of three models for their system going forward: status quo, charter system or an Investing in Educational Excellence contract. That’s also known as an “IE²” contract.

The options present varying levels of flexibility -- and accountability. The intent, according to the state Department of Education, is to improve student academic results.

The Georgia Legislature adopted the new models several years ago after districts complained that state rules were tying them down. School systems have a big financial incentive to choose either charter status or IE².

Rejecting both options might cause them to lose money-saving waivers that would let them exceed state caps on class sizes, for example, or to cut attendance calendars below the minimum. Such waivers have been used in recent years to help school districts balance their budgets.

In charter systems, school officials would have to redo central offices to support decision-making by local school governing councils. Under IE², there is no such requirement for those councils.

Here’s a closer look at each option and early thoughts from midstate school leaders about the mandate:

STATUS QUO

Even though area school systems haven’t officially chosen a path, they seem to have eliminated one of them: the status quo.

The status quo option allows school systems to keep operating under current guidelines, without the potential savings and flexibility offered through waivers.

“I don’t know anybody in the state that’s taking that option or will take that option,” said Daryl Fineran, Peach County’s superintendent. “To me, it’s really not an option. I think your two options are either IE² and charter.”

Steve Smith, Bibb County’s interim superintendent, said the county almost certainly wouldn’t choose the status quo option either, adding that the issue might lie in the name itself.

Fineran agreed with that assessment.

“Well, I think the whole intention for every school system to pick a pathway to go ... was to show improvement in the school systems,” Fineran said. “So just the sheer name of it -- status quo, meaning we’re not going to do anything and stay where we’re at -- must mean you’re in pretty good shape and don’t need to improve.”

CHARTER SYSTEM

For the charter option, school systems would have greater accountability, but they would have freedom to innovate within individually governed schools in order to meet goals.

Fineran said he’d likely recommend that option for Peach County and said the biggest difference would be in school governance.

Under a charter system, each school would have its own governing council that would have input on the hiring process and other decisions.

“A charter system is just embracing some more individuality at schools and a more governing voice for individual schools,” Fineran said.

The system would allow for waiver applications for state regulations on class size. Fineran said Peach County “couldn’t function” without the ability to go a few students over in certain classes.

Additionally, charter systems would have the freedom to write their own contracts for individual schools with innovative scheduling and curriculum choices, provided the end goal was a boost in student achievement.

Fineran said that could create different schools with different academic focuses in Peach County, except for the high school level, since there is only one in the county.

“If you have two middle schools or three elementary schools, like we have, there would be some options into which school does which in curriculum,” he said. “It could be possibly different amounts of time at one school in subject areas, as long as it doesn’t ultimately affect the bus schedule at the end of the day.”

Smith, who is set to retire later this month, also said he would direct Bibb County toward the charter option because of the “shared decision-making philosophy.” Bibb County already has a charter school, the Academy for Classical Education, with others going through the application process.

Smith also pointed to the potential for $80 to $90 per pupil in supplemental funding from the state through the Quality Basic Education Act.

“It gives us a little more money, and I tell you what, we need more money,” Smith said.

Fineran doesn’t expect any financial windfall from the charter decision, other than potential savings through waivers.

“I highly doubt that there’s any financial incentives to do the charter at this point, because I think most of that money is already gone,” he said.

According to figures from the state board, 28 of the state’s 180 school systems have already been approved as charter systems, with 23 more having expressed their intent to go that route.

IE²

The IE² option, in essence, is an agreement between a school district and the state. In exchange for flexibility, the school system would face greater accountability for student progress.

Three school systems have already chosen that route -- Gwinnett, Rabun and Forsyth counties -- and if Superintendent Mark Scott’s current opinion is any indication, Houston County could join them.

“If I had to say a way that I was leaning as far as making a recommendation to our board, it would be IE² at this point,” Scott said. “But we’re going to try to examine everything we can prior to making that decision.”

Under an IE² contract, the local school system could request waivers for exclusion from certain regulations, provided the goal for those waivers is improvement in student achievement. Among those waiver requests must be one of the “big four” -- class size, expenditure control, certification or salary schedule requirements.

That won’t be a problem for Houston County, Scott said.

“The last several years, we’ve requested class size waivers,” he said.

Through that flexibility, each school is expected to show an increase in each annual College and Career Ready Performance Index score through the state Board of Education. That increase must be at least 3 percent of the gap between the baseline and 100. (If a school’s original score is 50, for example, it would need an improvement of 1.5 points per year.)

The basis for the five-year contract would be the 2015-16 school year, and Scott said he’d hope Houston County could begin its contract in 2016-17.

If a school doesn’t meet that improvement requirement, the school system could lose governance of that school. While there are several options for what that loss of governance could look like, Scott said he’s hoping to prepare for such a possibility ahead of time.

“We really don’t think we’re going to have that issue, but if we do, we want to write into our contract that we would create a charter at that school,” he said.

The whole decision will require lots of analysis and discussion for every school system, Scott said. He hopes he and his school board don’t take it too far, though.

“It’s a lot to think about, and you can overthink it,” he said.

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.

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