School plan leaves some scratching heads

SUWANEE - Teachers, parents and community members packed Gwinnett County Public Schools' board room Thursday evening to ask questions about the district's proposed partnership contract with the state Board of Education.

To the dismay of many in the audience, the questions were not answered during the public hearing. Below are some answers to some commonly asked questions about the plan.

What is an Investing in Educational Excellence (IE2) partnership contract?

House Bill 1209, approved by the state legislature earlier this year, allows local school systems to enter into a contract with the Georgia Board of Education. The school system must agree to meet accountability measures beyond what is required to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In exchange, the state Board of Education will grant the school system flexibility from some state rules and mandates.

When did Gwinnett County Public Schools decide to pursue an IE2 partnership contract?

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said the district began talking about pursuing a partnership contract about two years ago as the concept and legislation were being developed. During several school board meetings this fall, as well as in the school system's annual "State of the Schools" address, Wilbanks discussed the district's interest in pursuing such a contract.

How will local schools be affected?

The 9-page strategic plan posted on the district's Web site outlines the parameters of the areas of added accountability the district will adhere to and the flexibility the school system is seeking. Local schools will have the opportunity to develop a plan that best suits the needs of their community, Wilbanks said. Principals, working with teachers, school councils and PTA members, will lead school efforts to implement the specific flexibilities - and accompanying accountabilities - that will help them meet their goals.

What consequences will schools face if they don't meet the accountability requirements stipulated in the contract?

The district's strategic plan states that consequences for not achieving the performance goals outlined in the partnership contract include monitored, then directed, management of the school and school processes. Should the school not improve after district-level support is provided, the district will institute loss of governance by completing and implementing processes for conversion charter school status.

Why is the school district seeking flexibility in class sizes?

"We want to get out from under an artificial barrier that ties principals' hands in staffing and operating their schools and costs us millions of dollars we could better use elsewhere," Wilbanks said Thursday during the public hearing. "Adding just one student to each classroom districtwide would save us over $30 million, money we need in these tight budget times for things like teacher salary increases."

While saving money, especially in this economy, is a good thing, Wilbanks said that's not the reason the district is seeking such flexibility. The superintendent said he wants to give schools more options in how they deliver instruction.

"We feel that the partnership contract offers us an unprecedented opportunity to empower principals and teachers to do what they believe will best help their students improve academic achievement," he said.

Why is the district seeking flexibility in salary schedules and certification requirements?

The district is not looking for a way to reduce teacher salaries, Wilbanks said, or will it remove qualified teachers from the classroom.

Having flexibility when it comes to the salary schedule and certification requirements would allow the district to be more competitive in recruiting teachers in hard-to-fill areas such as science and math. If allowed the option, the school district could, for example, recruit a person with 25 years of industry experience and move them up a couple of steps on the salary schedule, instead of starting them at zero.

Is the school district trying to eliminate duty-free lunches for elementary school teachers?

No. Wilbanks said the district has no intention of eliminating this work-free period. He said, however, there are times during the year when schools need flexibility in this area. For example, he said, it is a good idea for kindergarten and first-grade teachers to accompany their students to the cafeteria during the first week of school so that they can show them around and review lunchroom etiquette with the children.

"We just want local schools to be able to work this out with their faculties in the manner that best suits the local school," Wilbanks said.

So what's the next step?

The Gwinnett County Board of Education must vote on the proposed partnership contract before it is submitted to the state. The next opportunity for this to be done will be this week, during a special-called meeting on Wednesday to address legislative priorities.

SideBar: For more information

Have additional questions about the partnership contract? E-mail education reporter Heather Darenberg.