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This alternative high school faced closure this year. A newly filed bill in the legislature may save it
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Students at Mountain Education Charter School work Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, during class at the Gainesville campus on Woods Mill Rd. - photo by Scott Rogers

Mountain Ed Charter High School faced closure this year after a bill cut state funding to its Gainesville campus and 17 others across northeast Georgia.

Now, newly proposed legislation in Georgia’s House could save the alternative charter school, which provides a self-paced curriculum for at-risk youth, working teenage families, disadvantaged and non-traditional students estranged from conventional high school structures. Mountain Ed serves 258 students in Hall and 2,441 students across northeast Georgia. 

The school’s charter was placed in peril in 2021 after the passage of a bill designed by a group of legislators including Sen. Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, intended to restructure it into a more cost-effective model.

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Students at Mountain Education Charter School arrive to check in Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, at 4:30 p.m. at the Gainesville campus on Woods Mill Rd. - photo by Scott Rogers

Mountain Ed, which had around $23 million in its general fund last year, received about $30 million in state funding in fiscal year 2022, with the average revenue received per full-time equivalency from fiscal year 2018-2022 reported at $10,550.80 per student.

Administrative officials of Mountain Ed were initially ​content with the version that passed in Georgia’s Senate. But when the bill reached the House, lawmakers made changes in the language, eliminating vital streams of state funds under the assumption that operational expenses of Mountain Ed could be absorbed by local school systems, jeopardizing the future of its charter.

That bill – Senate Bill 153 – cleared both legislative chambers and was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in 2021, and unless a new bill was drafted and passed by lawmakers, Mountain Ed along with two other alternative schools in the state, Coastal Plains and Foothills, could be stripped of their charters by 2024.

Rep. Chris Erwin, R-Homer, is now pushing for House Bill 87 – a piece of legislation he authored that would allow Mountain Ed and the other schools to function as they did prior to the bill filed in 2021, primarily through the restoration of state funding. 

Erwin estimates the new bill, filed late last week, would provide up to $1,300 to students who decide to leave traditional high school for one of the three alternative charters, though that number would vary depending on the number of classes a student takes. 

Through a heavier weighted funding formula and a partnership between charter schools and local school systems, according to Erwin, students who may be falling behind or disenfranchised by traditional high school structures would have the ability to attend schools like Mountain Ed either on a part-time or full-time basis.

“A (student) could attend full-time at Mountain Ed (under this bill),” Erwin said. “Partner schools will say, ‘Hey, we have a student who is behind in English – he failed his senior English, and we don’t teach first semester senior English in the second semester. He can come to (Mountain Ed) and take the class, get his credit and also graduate on time.”

Under the new bill, the partnership between alternative charters and local school systems would see that state funds follow the student, with the amount based on their chosen course load and the flexibility to alternate between school years. 

“(A student) can go to Mountain Ed, and Mt Ed would tell (a partner school), ‘Hey, you need to pay us $2000 for that kid,’” Erwin said. “We’ll get him the course and he’ll graduate…I made it even more flexible than they are now for students to go back and forth – to stay at their current school but go enroll full-time at (Mountain Ed). If a junior wants to do his junior year at Mountain Ed…and go back for his senior year at Banks County, he can do that.”

Mountain Ed Assistant Superintendent Joe Cash said students would be able to enroll without any requirement of taking classes at their local school system, and he went on to explain how the dynamics of that partnership would work.

“They can attend (Mountain Ed) full-time,” Cash said. “...even though the student would still be enrolled at the local high school, Mountain Ed is where they would come to receive their instruction. We would invoice the school for the funding, once that student enrolled with us…those funds would follow wherever the student is.”

Erwin, a former superintendent with the Banks County School System, said primary oversight of funding and operational matters over the charter schools would remain with local boards of Mountain Ed and its sister schools. 

The bill also would allow for the expansion of Mountain Ed’s specific model, according to Erwin, and provide students throughout the state another option outside of conventional high school within seven zones across Georgia.

In accordance with the Senate Bill passed in 2021, Mountain Ed had been forced to downsize its number of employees from 54 to 33 full-time staff members. 

While the new bill focuses primarily on aspects of funding, Cash said Mountain Ed plans to continue downsizing that footprint over the next few years, though he maintained that this won’t create an adverse impact on services available to students – like teachers and social workers. 

With around 1000 part-time employees, Mountain Ed relies heavily on those working part-time to educate its students.

“We’re not removing any services to students at the campus level,” Cash said. “We don’t want them to feel any of this reduction…the services to students will remain robust.”

Mountain Ed has a graduation rate between 82%-97%, depending on the number of core credits taken by its students. Around 16% of students enrolled are students with disabilities and 5% are English language learners.

Students who earn a diploma through Mountain Ed must have at least an 80 in every class, meaning each student graduates with HOPE scholarship eligibility.

Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, and Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton – both of whom had previously supported the effort to cut state funding to the three schools – have since signed on as cosponsors of Erwin’s bill. 

“I fully support the three alternative schools in Georgia, including Mountain Ed, and I believe that House Bill 87 will be a positive step forward in the life of these schools,” said Dubnik, chair of the House Education Committee. 

Jones could not be reached for comment.

Cash expressed optimism about the bill, conveying gratitude to lawmakers.

“Although there’s no perfect piece of legislation, and there’s always questions people are going to have, this at least meets us on our own request for the three things we said we’re really seeking…to remain an independent school system, to have regional attendance for our students and to have adequate funding. We feel like our legislators have listened to our request,” Cash said.

“We’re glad for a lifeline,” he added. “We’re very thankful our legislators have heard our specific requests.”
Erwin said he plans to continue to push for the bill’s passage, and though he remains confident the bill can pass before Mountain Ed’s charter expires this summer, he acknowledged it “has a long way to go.”

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Mountain Education Charter School student Ciara Cieslukowski works in class Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, at the Gainesville campus on Woods Mill Road as she nears completion of her senior year of school. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Students at Mountain Education Charter School walk to class Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, at the Gainesville campus on Woods Mill Rd. - photo by Scott Rogers