A Kennesaw charter school will likely close at the end of the school year unless administrators can secure a special charter with the state after breaking ties with the Cobb School District.
Administrators are adamant the Kennesaw Charter Science and Math Academy, an elementary school where student enrollment has more than halved in recent years, will not close.
But the school is not renewing its five-year charter contract with the Cobb County School District, which expires on June 30, 2020, leaving its uncertain future in the state’s hands.
In an emailed statement to the MDJ, the Kennesaw charter school’s board of directors chairwoman, Jacqueline Oduselu, said the decision not to renew the charter contract with the county was partly based on the school’s finances and past performance with the Cobb School District.
“The governing board and admin team ultimately decided that the best interests of the Kennesaw charter community will be better met by seeking a charter contract through a different authorizer,” Oduselu said. “This means we have notified the district that we will not seek renewal from CCSD.”
Oduselu said the school is not closing its doors, confident a new charter can be obtained before the start of the 2020-21 school year.
This is despite a written statement from the Cobb School District that its staff have already begun working with the school “to ensure a smooth closing.”
“Last month, Kennesaw Charter Science and Math Academy’s board informed the district of their decision to not seek a renewal application through the Cobb County Board of Education,” a statement from CCSD spokeswoman Nan Kiel said Friday. “While communicating their appreciation for district support, the Kennesaw Charter Science and Math Academy indicated their intent to operate through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The district will continue to support the students and staff at Kennesaw charter and have already begun working with the administration to ensure a smooth closing.”
The Cobb County Board of Education plans to further discuss the Kennesaw charter school’s status at its regular public meeting on Thursday, Kiel said.
Oduselu claims the school will receive “more equitable funding” under a different charter, which in turn would strengthen the school’s curriculum, improve services and open enrollment to students outside the county.
“We, the governing board, are fully committed and intend to continue to provide an excellent choice for parents seeking an innovative educational environment for their children,” she said. “These are exciting times for Kennesaw charter, and we are looking forward to embarking on this adventure with the entire community.”
Oduselu’s recent comments are in direct contrast to what school staff were previously told at their last meeting, according to several people who have contacted the MDJ and commented on a public Facebook page set up by the school’s former parent teacher organization.
“I wanted to let you know that the statement Ms. Oduselu gave to you regarding Kennesaw Charter Science and Math Academy conflicts dramatically with what the executive director told the staff at the last staff meeting,” a woman anonymously emailed the MDJ Friday. “Staff was informed that KCSMA would not exist after June 2020, and if the school continues, it will be a new school, with a new name, and a new authorizer. Maybe you could get a staff member to speak if their name is withheld.”
The former KCSMA PTO page on Facebook, which is open to the public, contains several recent conversations about the school and whether it will close.
“KCSMA as it is known will be closing. If they don’t receive state authorization, there will be no school,” page administrators said Dec. 5. “It will be difficult to get parents to back this when they are being less than forthcoming with all of the pertinent information.”
On Friday, page administrators again posted about the issue, stating “Staff was explicitly told the school will be closing. Perhaps the board chair and executive director need to come up with one statement to give everyone.”
Oduselu posted her latest statement, the one she provided to the MDJ, on the Facebook page Friday, which elicited further comments from administrators and users.
“That statement is NOT what staff was told,” page administrators said of Oduselu’s comment. “There was video. Ask teachers what they were told. On another page, I think, someone suggested a forensic audit be conducted, which is an excellent idea.”
Oduselu was asked by the former PTO members to clarify several points in regards to the school’s charter change and possible closure, including how the school would operate beyond June 2020, whether existing staff and students would have to reapply for jobs or re-enroll, and when parents will be given confirmation either way as to the school’s future.
“It seems staff has been told the school IS closing, so there are many rumors floating around, the Facebook page administrators said. “It would help squash rumors if there was clarification.”
Oduselu has not responded to those questions on the Facebook page, nor has she responded to follow-up questions from the MDJ.
In one of the comments on the page, a current student’s parent states “every staff member and teacher there is very active and heavily invested in the best interests of the students.”
“In time the truth with everything will come out but in the meantime I will continue to send my child there with my head held high and supporting the staff because what they are going through is not right or fair,” the parent posted.
A Dec. 5 post by page administrators states school staff were told the school will close at the end of this school year, and that the school needs more board members but according to the board “no one has stepped up.”
The board’s only members are Oduselu, the chair, and treasurer George Shipman, according to the board’s website.
The state’s education department states charter school boards typically comprise seven to 15 members.
“Others say they have applied to be a board member and have not been contacted or were not approved,” administrators of the school’s former PTO Facebook page said. “Parents who are not comfortable with the uncertainty may want to start touring their zoned schools and other schools for school choice transfers. If anyone knows of any teaching or school jobs in the area, the staff would probably appreciate a heads up.”
Older posts on the page highlight rumors about the school, claiming it has no registered nurse, that it is defaulting on its bonds debt, that it failed to have its STEM accreditation renewed, that it can’t make payroll and that it owes $2 million.
“Parents please find your child another school ASAP,” one woman commented.
The state’s view
According to the Georgia Department of Education, schools that have been denied a charter by a local school district can apply for a special charter with the state’s board of education.
In Georgia, the only entities authorized to approve charter school contracts are local boards of education, like that in Cobb County, and the state board of education.
“In order to be granted a charter, schools must be approved by both their local board of education and the state board of education with the exception of state-chartered special schools which are authorized by the state board of education only,” the Georgia Department of Education states on its website. “An application, commonly referred to as a petition, must be submitted to and approved by a local authorizer. After approval by a local authorizer, the petition must be submitted to the District Flexibility and Charter Schools Division at the Georgia Department of Education. Petitions will then be subject to an evaluation process and will ultimately be approved or denied by the State Board of Education.”
It is not clear whether this process is able to be completed in time for the Kennesaw charter school to open under a new charter in the 2020-2021 school year.
The Georgia Department of Education states that all charter contract petitioners, including those for state-chartered special schools, must submit a letter of intent to both the state department and the appropriate local board at least six months before submitting the petition to the state.
The Georgia Department of Education does not have a deadline to submit charter petitions, which are processed on a first-come, first-served basis, the department’s website states.
“Until the charter schools division receives an executed contract with all appropriate signatures, the petitioner may not legally open their charter school,” the state department’s website says.
KCSMA had 333 students in grades K-5 as of Oct. 1, 2019, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
It opened in 2003 with almost 400 students. The roll slowly climbed to around 600 students in 2011, then jumped to over 800, peaking at 890 in 2014, according to the state.
More than 800 students attended the school until 2017, when the roll fell back down under 600 and then continued to progressively diminish, records show.
The school’s current charter contract with the Cobb and Georgia school boards states the decision to renew the contract will be based upon, in part, whether the school’s scores are equal to or better than both the Cobb School District’s and the state’s in respect of the annual College and Careers Ready Performance Index.
CCRPI scores over the last five years shows the Kennesaw charter school has not once equaled or exceeded Cobb’s score, and has only equaled or exceeded the state’s score twice — in 2017 and 2019.
The school’s charter contract states the school and its board are responsible for “concluding the business and affairs” of the school upon its closure, and the school must “cooperate with the local board and state board to the extent necessary to provide an orderly return of the students to their local school.”
It further orders the school to return all public funds and all furniture and equipment purchased with public funds that remains at the time of closure to either the local or state school board within a month of operations ceasing.
Neither the Cobb or Georgia board of education is responsible for any of the school’s debts, the contract states.
The Kennesaw charter academy is located on Cobb Parkway near Rutledge Road and is within a few miles of the Kennesaw, Bullard and Big Shanty elementary schools.
A Feb. 28, 2019 “state of the school” report published on the school’s website shines some light on the school’s status.
The report lists 475 enrolled students, of which around 61% are black or African, 15% Hispanic, 15% white or Caucasian, 5% Asian and 4% multiracial.
Around 41% of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, around 7% require special education and about 13% speak English as a second language, the report states.
It cites a school audit completed for fiscal 2018 that identified “operational areas of concern,” and shows the school had just under half a million dollars in “unrestricted cash” over the last few years, and around the same amount in total liabilities.
The school’s “strategic growth plan” aims to expand classes through eighth grade, the report states.
It shows there were 395 K-4 students as of the end of February, of which 384 intended to return, as well as an estimated 45 pre-K students, 193 “lottery applicants” and an estimated 50 sixth graders.
The tuition-free school relies on state funding based on the number of full-time student enrollments, documents show.
It is affiliated with the Cobb County School District but does not receive Cobb SPLOST funding, per the school’s website.
“KCSMA makes do with less and has learned to make the most of the resources it has,” the school website states. “KCSMA also relies heavily on parent and family volunteers. For example, volunteers are used as lunchroom monitors, media center assistants, etc.”