Originally created 12/24/06

A class war in Greene?



GREENSBORO, Ga. - Some parents in one of Georgia's most prosperous lake communities see a proposed charter school as a way to set high standards for their children and give them a better education.

Opponents of the school say it will divide the wealthy lakeside students from the poorer, and often black, students living in the rest of the county, and they will fight the petition to create the school in front of the state Board of Education.

The Greene County Board of Education signed off on the petition last month, but the state school board must also agree before the plan can proceed.

Rabun Neal, a member of the school's charter committee and the president of Reynolds Plantation, maintains the school would be open to anyone in the county and rejects any assertion that it would admit only white students.

The school's petition sets down priorities for admission. First, children of families living closest to the school, "namely the land surrounding the intersection of Carey Station Road and Lake Oconee Parkway" would be accepted.

If the school had more room, administrators would hold a lottery for prospective students south of Interstate 20.

Finally, students from the rest of Greene County would be considered.

Slightly more than 44 percent of Greene County's population is black, according to the 2000 Census, but the concentration of black residents is much higher in northern Greene County.

While upscale developments have sprung up along Lake Oconee, the county as a whole is still poor. Median household income was $33,400 in 2000, compared with nearly $42,000 nationally. Sixteen percent of the county's families lived below the poverty level, compared with 9 percent across the country.

John Trotter, the president and CEO of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators, contends that taxpayer money shouldn't fund a public charter school that he says would create a class system and benefit wealthier, mostly white residents of Lake Oconee's affluent neighborhoods.

Most of the county's black students wouldn't be eligible to apply to the school, said the Rev. Roi Johnson, who leads the New Springfield Baptist Church.

"This may not be racist in intent, but it brings about segregation in actuality," the Rev. Johnson said.

Mr. Neal said he would attend any state board meeting if anyone protests the school and argue that the petition be approved.

Projected to open in fall 2007 for 15 to 20 kindergarten pupils, the academy would add a grade each year and is projected to house 576 pupils in kindergarten through 11th grade by 2017.

Many people moving to the developments want the school, Mr. Neal said.

"They have looked at options and want to do something different," he said.

The Greene County School System's high school graduation rate was 68.2 percent last year, about 2 percent lower than the state average of 70.8 percent, according to the most recent data available from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement. Average SAT scores in the 2,100-pupil system also were lower than state and national averages in 2004 and 2005.

Under state and federal law, charter schools can't use any admission criteria to admit students.

"Any student in the county or attendance zone has a right to enroll (at a charter school)," said Andrew Broy, the state Department of Education director of charter schools.

Building a charter school now could allow Lake Oconee families to avoid school overcrowding, and draw more homeowners - and therefore more tax revenue - for all Greene County schools, Mr. Neal said.

But the proposed attendance zones still would serve mostly affluent, white students and exclude other poorer students who can't afford to live in the area, said Al Dickens, a retired Union Point Elementary School teacher who attended a protest Tuesday.