The Georgia Charter Schools Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to approve a petition from the Georgia Charter Educational Foundation for what will be Cherokee's first-ever charter school.
The foundation filed the petition on behalf of Charter Schools USA, a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based private company.
The company plans to open Cherokee Charter Academy, a kindergarten through eighth-grade facility, in the Holly Springs area by as soon as August with an initial enrollment of 700 students.
The approval comes after the Cherokee County school board unanimously denied the application. The state commission can be asked by applicants to review petitions denied by local school boards in June.
Richard Page, vice president of school development for Charter Schools USA, praised the commission's decision.
"We are very excited," he said. "The parents have finally gotten what they've been asking for, which was school choice."
The commission's interviewing committee earlier this week recommended approval of the petition. Even though the petition had that blessing, Page said he and his supporters were "cautiously optimistic" about their chances going into Thursday's meeting.
It was the second time in as many years the commission considered the company's petition. In December 2009, the commission denied the company's petition to open a charter school, which also had been voted down that summer by the Cherokee school board.
This time, the foundation and the company took into account the commission members' concerns and improved significantly its second petition, said Mark Peevy, executive director of the commission.
Peevy said the petition had better proof of broad community support and of the proposed governing board's capacity of understanding the many facets of operating a charter school. While funded by taxpayer dollars, charter schools are funded by their own board - not the county school board elected by voters countywide.
The charter school will be funded using tax dollars under the commission's authority. The commission will determine how much funding the charter school should receive by calculating the amount spent on each Cherokee County School District student.
The interviewing committee also had positive comments about the school's academic options, such as its individualized learning plans, required foreign language instruction at each grade level, emphasis on character education and its performance goals and objectives.
Also applauded were the foundation's organizational plan and the diverse background of its governing board.
Along with the Cherokee Charter Academy, the governing board also will oversee the Coweta Charter Academy that opened in Senoia in August 2009.
The governing board members include John McIntyre, executive director at Morgan Stanley & Co.; Marian Parker, an attorney; Frederick Black, a retired private school educator; marketing consultant Lyn Carden of Towne Lake; Danny Dukes of Union Hill, who is self-employed in financial management and outsourcing; and Ernest Taylor, president of an Atlanta-based search firm.
The local governing council for Cherokee Charter Academy, which will oversee the day-to-day operation of the school, also has been named.
Members are Heather Blevins of Woodstock, an independent sales director with The Pampered Chef; Larry Blase of Bradshaw Farm, an adjunct professor of writing and broadcast journalism at Reinhardt University; Quentin Thomas of Woodstock, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and past candidate for the county Board of Commissioners; George Lopos of Towne Lake, who is retired from a career in higher education; Cedartown City Manager Robbie Rokvoitz of Canton, former city manager for Holly Springs; and Chris Freeman, a civil engineer from Holly Springs.
Cherokee County School District officials on Thursday had "nothing to say relative to the charter school," according to Mike McGowan, director of public information, communications and partnerships for the school system.
The school district staff in its review of the application in June noted concerns about how the company would provide adequate services for special needs services as well as central office services. The application, according to the district, also left many unanswered questions about governance and accountability issues.
The district staff also criticized the petitioner for not agreeing to submit an audit of the proposed school's finances or to allow the school board to approve its budget.
The constitutionality of the Georgia Charter School Commission currently hangs in the balance. The Georgia Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit filed by seven school districts that challenges the commission's authority to redirect public school funding to charter schools.
Peevy said "it remains to be seen" how a negative ruling would affect the constitutionality of charter schools approved by the commission.
Page said the company now will work to begin the process of closing on property and starting construction. Page declined to give further details about the site other than it would be in the Holly Springs area.
The company, he said, expects to formally announce its location plans in the next 30 to 45 days.
If all goes according to plans, Page said he expects the facility, which will be about 55,000 square feet, will open in August. Page added he's "confident" the school will open by August.
Page said the company plans to open enrollment soon after building plans are finalized. If more students sign up than seats are available, a lottery system will be used.
The company, he said, will launch a public relations campaign to inform parents about the school's pending opening.
"We look forward for the opportunity to build a good working relationship with the school district," he added.
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), a supporter of charter schools and the company's petition, praised the decision as one that brings "great news for parents and students."
"The decision to bring high-quality education providers into Cherokee County is always the right thing to do," he said. "Giving parents and kids more education options is always better than fewer options. It's a great day for Cherokee County."
Dukes also proclaimed Thursday as a "great day for education in Cherokee County."
Dukes, who in 2008 unsuccessfully ran for the county school board, said the decision gives parents a public school choice. He also sees the commission's unanimous approval as a testament of the petition's lack of flaws.
Ms. Carden, who has a kindergarten student enrolled in county schools, said she plans to move her daughter to the charter school once it opens.
"I wanted choice for my daughter," she said as to why she supports the company and its plans.
County public schools are great, she said, but not all children fit into the mold of a traditional public school.
"For parents who want an option, this is an excellent choice," she said.