Athens City Schools — so far — stands alone in its decision to become a charter school authorizer.
Athens Superintendent Trey Holladay said the Board of Education plans to become an authorizer, which would give the board the power to approve or deny a charter school looking to open in the city. If one is approved, the board would act as a third party to ensure the school is up to standards.
“We want our board to have some control,” Holladay said. “We don’t want to leave it to the state to decide what charter we get.”
Hartselle City, for now, has decided not to be an authorizer, while Decatur City, Morgan County, Lawrence County and Limestone County schools haven’t made decisions. Local school systems have until Sept. 1 to decide.
State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice said Thursday that boards will get another chance to become authorizers next June.
If Bice were a local school superintendent, he said, he would support becoming an authorizer.
“If you choose not to be an authorizer, then you are automatically giving away your opportunity to have a say in the governance of what could potentially be charters in your district,” Bice said.
“If the local school board doesn’t become an authorizer, then entities that want to start a charter school go directly to the (state) commission. I would want, as a local superintendent, to maintain some oversight of education in my community.”
An authorizer provides oversight and can approve or deny a charter school’s renewal, a process that happens every five years. If an authorizer declares a charter applicant has not met standards, the renewal can be denied, but the charter school can appeal the decision to the newly created Alabama Public Charter School Commission.
If a school system decides not to become one, the Alabama Public Charter School Commission would function as the authorizer.
State lawmakers approved charter school legislation in this year’s regular session. Two types of charter schools are allowed: conversions and start-ups. Local school boards can convert existing public schools to charters, or tax-exempt organizations can start charters.
There will be a statewide cap of 10 start-up charter schools per year for the first five years, but no cap on conversion charters, beginning with the 2016-17 school year.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated under a contract with tax-exempt organizations. Standards are included in their contracts, rather than by law or regulations. They do not adhere to the same rules as public schools.
Athens school board President Russell Johnson said being an authorizer requires additional work, but it’s worth it to maintain some local control. He said the application process to become an authorizer is extensive, and that the school system has to have a request for proposals ready by Nov. 1.
A request for proposals outlines the ways in which a school district believes a charter school can help improve educational opportunities.
“Once we complete the request, we’ll advertise it, and charter schools that are interested will have to show that they can meet those needs better than what we are currently doing,” Johnson said.
Johnson said one need the school board identified is a school for students who are severely disabled.
In Hartselle, Superintendent Vic Wilson said his district does not plan to become an authorizer.
“At this point, there are too many gray areas and issues regarding liability,” he said. “We don’t want to jump into something not fully knowing what we’re getting into.”
Bice said he understands the liability concerns.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” he said.
Decatur City school board President Karen Duke said it’s difficult to make a decision because the system is busy making sure the first few days of school run smoothly.
“It’s a lot to juggle right now,” she said. “I’ve been doing some research and I know (Superintendent) Dr. (Ed) Nichols has been doing some research, but we haven’t made a decision yet.”
Morgan County Schools Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said his top priority is making sure schools run smoothly this week as well.
“We’re in the process of gathering information,” Hopkins said. “We’re not as informed as we need to be to make a decision yet.”
Limestone County Superintendent Thomas Sisk and Lawrence County Superintendent Johnny Yates both said their respective school boards haven’t made a decision.
Holladay said when weighing the pros and cons, he found the biggest con is a lack of information.
“I know there have been questions about liability, and there are still a lot of unknowns,” he said.
Charter school regulations are still being developed by the state Department of Education. But Johnson said the Athens school board has spent a lot of time talking to its attorney and feels confident he has mitigated those issues.
Holladay said he doesn’t expect a charter school in Athens within the next three years.
“Later down the road, maybe three-plus years, there’s a possibility,” he said.