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Fulton Science Academy – A game of chicken

This is the first of two articles about the charter renewal of the Fulton Science Academy.

It’s been difficult for me to get my hands around the issue of the Fulton Science Academy’s charter renewal. Most issues like this involving children or faith are pretty easy to grasp. Start with something like land use then combine some NIMBY sentiments and a pinch of xenophobia. But FSA’s situation is entirely different with a lot of influencing factors coming into play. Those on both sides of the issue are not afraid of employing emotional appeals or hyperbole to make a point. And in issues like this the truth usually is found somewhere in the middle. So after spending many hours of my Christmas break reading up on this fiasco, I’ve come to the conclusion that FSA’s charter renewal is really just…

A game of chicken

Yep, both sides were plowing ahead at full speed, waiting to see who would swerve first. Unfortunately those along for the ride include several hundred children, their families, taxpayers and a few bond holders. And all of these groups stand to lose big because of it.

“Increasingly volatile and combative relationship”

That’s how the credit rating agency Fitch described things between the FSA and the Fulton County School Board. They made this comment as they were downgrading FSA’s credit rating on their $19 million building bond. The relationship was volatile because each side had a big club to bring to the fight. FSA’s club was their recent Blue Ribbon Award from the Department of Education. Surely the school board would not deny a request from a school with such a high distinction. Armed with this, they asked for a ten year renewal on their charter, the maximum allowed. Additionally they requested a full waiver of Title 20 rules.

FCSB’s big club was a Georgia Supreme Court decision in 2011 that found that the state could not approve charter schools. That authority, according to the court, rests only with county school boards. It makes FSA’s appeal process more difficult. This is the FCSB’s chance to flex its muscle under the new ruling. As such, the Title 20 blanket waiver was off the table and they would only consider a three year charter renewal.

Neither side moved much after months of discussion. The FSA reduced their proposal to eight years but the FCSB made it clear that they would only consider three. Nevertheless, only the eight year proposal was brought before the school board. And at the end of this game of chicken, the FCSB didn’t swerve. Crash! They unanimously voted down FSA’s eight year request.

Both sides have acted poorly. Supporters of the FSA have been out in force claiming that the FCSB wants to shut down an award-winning school. It’s hyperbole pure and simple. It’s clear to me that the FSA wanted to force the school board into making such a vote even though another offer was on the table. Nobody desires to shut down this school.

On the flip side, the FCSB has not acted in good faith since the vote. FSA has relented (finally), agreeing to the three year term. However, the FCSB now will not consider it, saying the matter is closed. I don’t understand why they cannot move to amend or reconsider a matter that was before them. Most deliberative bodies easily have this option available under their rules. It would be best for all parties involved to approve the three year charter renewal and move on.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about why the FCSB is justified in wanting a shorter charter term for the Fulton Science Academy. And as always, there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed. Stay tuned.

What Happened to Manning Oaks Elementary?

Meet Manning Oaks Elementary School, a beautiful school on Cumming Street named after a historic Alpharetta family. In 2008 the school was named a Georgia School of Excellence for student achievement. Today is a far different story.

For the second year in a row Manning Oaks has failed to meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP. This is a key measure outlined by The No Child Left Behind Act. Schools that fail to meet AYP for two consecutive years are lumped into a bucket identified as “schools in need of improvement.” They are subject to immediate intervention by the state.

It’s downright embarrassing that a school in Alpharetta would carry such a dubious distinction. What went wrong? There are probably a hundred factors that contributed to the fall of Manning Oaks. Keep in mind that I’m no educator, but I’ve got an idea.

The Manning Oaks School District

Kids that attend Manning Oaks are from a geographic area that is roughly defined as west of GA-400 and east of GA-9 in Alpharetta. This area, over the years, has become Alpharetta’s corridor of apartments, condos and dense housing. Let’s take a look at what you’ll find in this school district.

On the far north end, Manning Oaks draws kids from apartments and condos in Milton along Webb and Morris Roads. It includes condos off Windward near Costco and densely packed neighborhoods along North Main and Henderson Parkway. Next you’ll get apartments and condos near the school on Cumming Street. Academy Street to the south is loaded with apartments, duplexes and condos. More apartments can be found off Old Milton and Westside Parkways in addition to some condos on South Main. They all go to Manning Oaks. And don’t forget that the future Peridot and Prospect Park projects are also in the Manning Oaks district.

Manning Oaks, with its declining test scores, contains perhaps the greatest concentration of apartments, condos and high density development of any elementary school around. In my opinion the correlation between test scores and development like this is no coincidence. Most educators will agree that apartments and rental dwellings attract transient families that don’t get involved with the schools.

The educated professions that Alpharetta lured to relocate here are the reason behind our high caliber schools. I wrote about this last year and I still believe it to be true. These relos raised smart kids and got involved in their schools. You see the result of this today. It’s also a self-fulling prophecy. Our outstanding schools are a driver to attract more to relocate here.

Alpharetta is urbanizing by approving high-density projects and changing land use plans to encourage more. Some planners believe the city should strive to attract a different type of person to relocate here. There are severe consequences to this. What’s happened to Manning Oaks is the first example. The adjacent schools are likely the next to experience a downturn in test scores. The end result could be a spiraling decline in scores that may hurt our ability to attract and retain families and businesses. It need not be this way.

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