Originally created 07/31/05

Schools' charters still need approval



Principals were replaced, new staffs were hired, public forums have been held and even the answering-machine messages have been changed at Murphey Middle and Jenkins-White Elementary, but they're not charter schools yet.

And state officials say it's not likely they will be charter schools when pupils return to class Aug. 15.

"Both schools will continue to operate as traditional public schools following the same school laws they have been until the state board approves the charters," said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

Typically, plans for charter schools are approved before any changes are instituted, he said.

"Their charter could be approved at the August board meeting, but it's not likely," Mr. Tofig said, explaining there are still a lot of details to work out.

"It wouldn't officially become a charter school until the board approves it."

It's more likely that the Jenkins-White charter will be approved in September or October and that the Murphey charter will be approved after that, he said.

This comes as a surprise to Pat Burau, Richmond County's assistant superintendent for school improvement and program development.

"I find that really interesting because they've been telling us since March or April that we're on schedule," Mrs. Burau said.

The schools have been placed on the preliminary agenda for the Aug. 11 meeting of the state school board, and school starts Aug. 15. However, the state board isn't planning to vote on the charter petitions at the August meeting, Mr. Tofig said.

The schools have been accepting applications from pupils interested in attending charter schools since June, but very few have applied, Mrs. Burau said. The schools will continue to draw pupils from the same attendance zones, despite the other changes. Pupils can apply for any available spaces at the schools.

The state is giving extra "scrutiny" of the charter petitions because the schools would be the first public charter schools in the state and others could use them as examples, Richmond County school board attorney Pete Fletcher said.

"I don't think it will have much impact," Mr. Fletcher said of the possibility that the charters wouldn't be approved before school starts.

Richmond County school officials touted the charter school initiative as a positive change when the Department of Education labeled Murphey Middle as "persistently dangerous" earlier this month.

As a result of the designation, Richmond County officials were required to develop a corrective-action plan and allow pupils to transfer to safer schools.

The document includes plans for the charter school conversion.

Charter schools differ from traditional schools in that they can be exempt - with approval - from following parts of state education law, Mr. Tofig said.

For instance, a school could offer separate gender classes or cosmetology classes, both of which have been talked about for the Richmond County charter petitions.

Mrs. Burau said no such waivers have been requested for this school year, so there shouldn't be a problem if the charter isn't approved.

"We would like to have the flexibility to do that in the future," she said.

The curriculum hasn't changed, and neither have the pupils. When pupils return, they'll have the same rules and regulations as last school year. The schools will continue to be on the needs-improvement list, and Murphey Middle will continue to be on the "persistently dangerous" schools list.

The only changes for this school year are the staff and the use of instructional time, but neither violate state laws or rules, Mrs. Burau said.

The school system turned to the charter school option as a way of restructuring the schools as required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Sometimes when you haven't been doing well, you just need to start over," the assistant superintendent said.

Richmond County schools Superintendent Charles Larke didn't return calls to his home phone or cell phone seeking comment and did not respond to an e-mail. Dr. Larke was not in his office Thursday, and the school system was closed Friday.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

What's Next: The Georgia Board of Education will meet Aug. 11. School starts Aug. 15 in Richmond County.

WHAT IS A CHARTER SCHOOL?

A charter school is a public school that is allowed to try new methods beyond the state's approved programs. The school operates under the terms of a charter, or contract, that has been approved by the county's board of education and the state board of education. For example, a school can request to have same-sex classes or year-round school to improve academic performance.