Brookhaven hopes to create new charter school

Frustration with distant county bureaucracies has spurred the creation of new cities in metro Atlanta, but the smaller new governments have been unable to provide one crucial service: schooling.

When Bates Mattison was campaigning to join the new Brookhaven city council two years ago, he had no tangible response to the most frequent question thrown his way: “What can you do about education around here?” Now, though, the councilman of this fledgling city in north DeKalb County has an answer: Brookhaven hopes to create a city-sponsored charter school.

The Georgia constitution bans the creation of new school districts. Brookhaven and Dunwoody, served by the DeKalb system, which has academic and financial shortcomings, tried unsuccessfully to change the constitution during the legislative session earlier this year. So now Brookhaven, a prosperous city south of Dunwoody, is shifting to Plan B.

Brookhaven Innovation Academy would initially serve 420 students from kindergarten through sixth grade, with a virtual component serving a like number from around the state. Plans call for an eventual expansion through high school. The academy would focus on science, technology, engineering and math. All students would learn to “code” for computers, and there is talk of partnering with Google.

“This could be a model for all cities,” Mattison said.

Brookhaven plans to oversee the school through a nonprofit organization. On Wednesday, Mayor J. Max Davis and his city council members agreed to serve on the governing board. Eventually, the plan is to give parents, the chamber of commerce and the DeKalb school system seats on the board, too, but city officials would hold the majority of appointments.

Glenn Delk, a Brookhaven resident and lawyer working with the city, said the board would hire an executive director, or headmaster, to actually run the school. Gareth Genner, a city resident and an educational technology consultant for the city, said the management structure is legal in Georgia, “but nobody has really moved forward with it.”

To open by fall 2015 as planned, they must file an application by Thursday with the State Charter Schools Commission. That Georgia agency was created by constitutional amendment in 2012, and it approved only a tiny fraction of applicants in its first year. Commission authorization is a new alternative to approval from local school districts, which traditionally decided which charter applications were approved. Officials said they plan to pursue that option instead of going through DeKalb.

“We’re excited about what’s coming,” Davis said.

Jay Gipson, a Brookhaven native with a son in private school, said his city needs a good public school.

“The sacrifices that families have to make to send their kids to private school is incredible,” said Gipson, a commercial developer. A competitive public school — charters are privately operated public schools that get government funding — would draw more families to the city, he predicted, though his own son, now finishing private middle school, would be too old to attend. “I think it would set the city apart from any other in the state,” he said.

State education officials said such local government involvement in a charter school might be a precedent, but Andrew Lewis, executive vice president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, noted that one other DeKalb school, the Museum School of Avondale Estates, was initially supported by the city of Avondale Estates.

“They saw it as economic development,” Lewis said.

By Ty Tagami and Wayne Washington
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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