The primary attendance zone for the Hephzibah Charter Academy was drawn to include only children living within the city limits of Hephzibah, which would not have had a large enough pool of students to be financially viable, according to Commission Executive Director Bonnie Holliday.
Holliday said the commission feared the school would choose to remain under-enrolled, and lose critical state funding, rather than fill seats by opening admission to the rest of Richmond County.
“The bottom line was with their enrollment projections, they’d have to open their attendance zone,” Holliday said. “They really wanted to serve Hephzibah rather than the whole of Richmond County.”
Holliday said the commission recommended HCA officials open admission to the secondary attendance zone if the school could not reach an 85 percent capacity with Hephzibah students. Because HCA rejected this condition, the application was denied.
Hephzibah City Commission Chairman Robert Buchwitz, also on the school’s governing board, said HCA disagreed with the condition because it would have been unfair to Hephzibah residents, whose local taxes would support the school.
According to state law, schools can create attendance zones but cannot give priority based on residence. So if officials filled 75 percent of the school with Hephzibah children and had to fill the other 10 percent with the secondary zone of Richmond County, they would have to open a lottery process if there were more applications than available seats.
However, the initial students already accepted from Hephzibah would have to be pooled in the lottery as well, because a school cannot hold a lottery for one zone and not another, Holliday said.
Buchwitz said HCA officials knew they couldn’t fill the school with Hephzibah residents alone but wanted to be able to keep the majority within the city limits. The open lottery would have diminished their control.
“We don’t have any taxing authority in Richmond County, so to tax the city of Hephzibah for a school and theoretically their children might or might not get in and they could get denied because somebody from Richmond County’s child took their place, makes no common sense whatsoever,” he said.
HCA submitted its application to the state commission in June along with 15 other potential charter schools. The commission was created in January after a 2012 constitutional amendment allowed for a state body to approve charter applications over local school boards.
Of the 16 original applications, Holliday said four did not meet legal requirements, three withdrew and one was approved at the local level in Bibb County. Of the remaining eight petitions considered, only one in Clayton County was approved Wednesday.
Applicants are eligible to re-apply with revised applications next year.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are given more flexibility and are not under the control of local districts. In Georgia, they are overseen by governing boards that control their finances and policies.
Buchwitz said HCA was intended to provide residents an alternative to Richmond County public schools. With Hephzibah trailing Richmond County in high school diploma rates, Buchwitz said the school was intended to be more academically rigorous and college orientated.
It was intended to open in 2015 to 845 students in kindergarten through eighth grades and would adopt the Robert J. Marzano What Works in Schools instruction model along with Common Core Georgia Performance Standards.
The state commission interviewed Richmond County Schools officials in September, who expressed concerns about the primary attendance zone being too exclusionary based on demographics, with 62 percent of Hephzibah being white.
Buchwitz could not comment on what the group’s next steps will be but said some kind of change is needed.
“We’re losing population in Richmond County, and it boils down to one thing, and it’s the education system,” Buchwitz said. “We felt we might could turn the tide with this where we could keep people here. That was our hope.”