Politics & Government

Georgia school takeover plan headed to voters

ATLANTA -- Next year, Georgians will have the final word on a plan by Gov. Nathan Deal that would let the state take over as many as 14 schools in Bibb County.

The Georgia House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to set up a November 2016 referendum on the so-called “Opportunity School District,” the office that would manage state intervention in some 120 “failing” schools statewide.

Its superintendent would report directly to the governor and have broad powers to choose schools for the program, select goals for each school and decide on the principal.

That principal and the Opportunity School District would make decisions about staff, curriculum and school finances.

The superintendent also could waive certain state school rules, but nothing relating to safety or civil rights.

Any failing charter school would get a new board named by the superintendent.

Critics such as state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, voted against it. He said it’s a bad idea to put so much power in the hands of an appointed person who may not know an area’s particular problems and strengths.

“I think that Bibb County is a shining example of a dysfunctional board (of education) that became functional because they started to reason with one another, and no strong arm of the state government had to come in,” he said.

The Bibb school board agreed on a new superintendent, he said, and it also united against a legislative move to change their district lines.

House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, asked his colleagues to join him in a “yes” vote to create the Opportunity School District.

“When a school chronically remains in failing status ... all of us have failed the children of Georgia attending that school,” O’Neal said.

The targeted schools are ones that have spent at least three years at the bottom of a state Department of Education scorecard on student achievement and progress.

The schools in Bibb County are Brookdale, Bruce, Burghard, Hartley, Ingram-Pye, King-Danforth, Rice, Riley and Williams elementary schools; Appling, Ballard-Hudson and Bloomfield middle schools; and Northeast and Southwest high schools.

Twiggs County High School is the only failing school in any of Bibb’s neighboring counties.

O’Neal said continuing to do nothing is not an option.

“If not this, what? If not now, when?” he said ahead of the vote.

Up to 20 schools would be chosen for the program each year, with a maximum of 100 schools under state control at any one time. Three percent of each school’s budget would be used to administer the Opportunity School District.

State oversight would last a maximum of 10 years and for as few as three years, for charters or schools that improve rapidly.

Bibb County school board member Daryl Morton said the results that the legislation is based on are questionable.

“I cannot support a change to our constitution that guts local control, says nothing about how it will improve school performance and instead focuses on how the state can take over local school property -- the building, the books, the technology­ -- and do with it as they please with zero accountability to local taxpayers,” he said.

Wanda West, another Bibb County school board member and a former Twiggs County superintendent, said the school takeover plan worries her.

“It is my hope that they won’t do it,” she said. “You can take over anything, but you’ll still have the same problem. You still have a school in the hole.”

Her suggestion is to invest more funds in professional training for educators who already are invested and employed in the school district.

On the House floor, state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, said, “we have failed to resource our students and teachers but yet we hold them accountable.”

That’s a reference to years of underfunding the formula that the state uses to divvy money among school districts.

But Republican supporters of the bill got a handful of valuable votes from Democrats, giving them the super­majority necessary to call the statewide referendum.

House Education Committee Chairman Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, said no one will eat at a restaurant with a failing health score. But as for failing schools, parents and students “don’t have the chance to walk away.”

Telegraph reporter David Schick contributed to this report.