By Mike Klein
Fulton Science Academy’s middle school will try to remain open this fall in Alpharetta even after the state board of education denied its state charter application on Thursday. The Academy was already rejected by Fulton County last December so it does not have another public school option.
“Our only viable option right now is to go to a tuition-based private school model which is not our first choice because then it won’t be open to everybody in the public,” board member Angela Lassetter said in a hallway interview just outside the state board meeting room.
Moments earlier Lassetter and two other Fulton Science Academy parents asked board members to wait another month before voting to approve or reject the school’s petition. “Thirty more days isn’t going to change a thing,” said state board member Brian Burdette. Several board members described their concerns about school finances and its governance model. The vote was 10-0 to deny the petition with one abstention.
“We will go forward if there is any possibility as a private institution,” Lassetter said. Parent Nadira Merchant said, “The end? This cannot be the end. The governance of our school, if it needs to be changed (then) change it. You cannot close it down. You cannot deny our children.” Parent James Webb said, “All we’re asking for is fairness and due process.”
Fulton Science Academy Middle School operates in partnership with two sister schools – Fulton Sunshine Academy for elementary pupils and Fulton Science Academy High School. Last year the middle school received a U.S. Department of Education national blue ribbon for academic excellence on standardized tests. So, charter denials by Fulton County and the state board are headlines of note.
Fulton Science Academy applied for a state charter in January just a few weeks after Fulton County denied the school’s petition for a new ten-year charter. Fulton County offered three years but the school insisted on the longer term, a condition that Fulton County board members refused to meet because they wanted more direct oversight over the school’s finances.
Several issues are involved here. First, Fulton Science Academy secured a $19 million bond package and then began to build a school even though it did not have an approved charter beyond June 30, 2012. Second, the Academy began to build its new school without obtaining proper construction site approvals. Third, the Academy did not comply with the Fulton County audit process so the county advised the state that the school was out of compliance with its contract.
State Department of Education staff have worked with Fulton Science Academy personnel on these and other questions since January, but some of the state’s questions were not adequately answered. For instance, records indicate the Academy did not account for what happened with almost $6 million of the $19 million in bond revenue when the state requested that information.
In documents that recommended a denial vote, the state noted, “The governing board has limited autonomy and appears to have little ability to make autonomous and independent decisions.” Fulton County previously noted that Fulton Science Academy personnel served on the boards of other organizations that were doing business with the school.
Thursday morning state board member Mike Royal said Fulton Science Academy financial stability and governance issues “are clearly debatable.” Board member Dan Israel said granting a state charter to Fulton Science could make the state liable for the $19 million bond package. “What is going to be the precedent that we set?” Israel asked. Board member Linda Zechmann noted, “We found no evidence that Fulton County schools did anything improper.”
Fulton Sunshine Academy for elementary students and the high school still have Fulton County local charters for next year but the future for 510 middle school students is hazy. State board members encouraged Fulton Science to address the outstanding issues and submit a new proposal next year.
“To say that it’s okay to close down for a year and (then) rise from the ashes, what are our parents and students supposed to do for that year?” asked Lassetter. “That hasn’t been addressed. It’s unfortunate that’s not been taken into consideration.”
The state board voted on several other charter schools agenda items. Charters were renewed for the Museum School of Avondale Estates and the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy. Ivy Prep Academy received a new two-year state charter after it was rejected by the Gwinnett County Board of Education. Charter system conversion petitions were approved for the Fulton County and Madison County school systems.