Maria Calkins and Sammy Smith jumped right into a critical issue, the school system’s application for charter system status.
Even the moments leading to their swearing-in — Calkins by Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff and Smith by Hall County Superior Court Judge Bonnie Oliver — were focused on the topic, as the board held its second public hearing before a Jan. 15 state-imposed application deadline.
And then the discussion consumed much of the first meeting for Calkins and Smith, with board members finally saying they believed they could vote at a planned retreat Saturday on whether to submit the application.
The retreat is set for 8 a.m. to noon Saturday at Jack Waldrip Real Estate, 200 W. Academy St.
Calkins said she saw the charter system as "an opportunity to move forward and spend more time doing what we do well instead of jumping through somebody else’s hoops."
Gainesville city is one of six school districts statewide so far that is pursuing the charter system status, which would give them more freedom to reform without stiff state regulations.
Officials said that charter status also would mean validation of changes already made, including giving parents the choice of elementary, middle school and high school "academies" built on a specific style of instruction.
David Shumake, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the system would receive $725,000 for becoming a charter system.
The district "put out a considerable amount of money" when it went to programs of choice five years ago.
"This allows us to recoup some of that ... but it also rewards our principals and teachers for the creation of the academies," Shumake said.
Merrianne Dyer, principal of Fair Street International Baccalaureate Academy, reaffirmed that point in her remarks. "We’ve done the work. We want the money," she said.
She said that after this year more school systems could vie for charter status and the pot of money available for school systems could shrink.
"I don’t want to lose this funding opportunity," Dyer said.
Also, charter status "does provide for us the opportunity to apply for specific grants for charter schools," Shumake said.
"There are a lot of grants available for schools classified as charter. ... The charter status basically says that we are doing something innovative with school reform in order to help children."
School officials, in fielding questions from audience members, said the district wouldn’t change much under the charter — with the major innovation, programs of choice, already having been accomplished.
However, it would have the opportunity to fiddle with such things as class sizes or standardized testing.
"That’s the fear factor for parents," said an audience member, David Bryant, who has three children in the system.
Dyer said that increased flexibility also meant "increased accountability."
Each year, the state would evaluate whether the district should continue as a charter, as the status is based on the premise that education reforms will produce academic improvements.
Likewise, a system can pull out of the charter, Shumake said.
Board member David Syfan said, "Change can scare me and we’ve been through a lot of changes, but what is driving that? If we had a perfect system, we wouldn’t need to change anything. If you don’t have a perfect system, change is the only option."
Bryant said he believed that, for the sake of the public learning more about the system’s efforts, "timing was unfortunate" for the application.
"We’re all feeling the deadline crunch," Smith said.
Shumake said he believes the state Board of Education could consider the charter system applications in April.
The school system has set up a "frequently asked questions" section about charter system status in English and Spanish on its Web site, www.gcssk12.net.