Question for Career Academy: ‘Where’s the money?’

Fayette County Board of Education members at the recent discussion about the CCA. From left, Barry Marchman, Mary Kay Bacallao, Leonard Presberg, Chairwoman Marion Key and Bob Todd. Photo/Ben Nelms.

The Jan. 7 meeting of the Fayette County Board of Education saw no shortage of representatives from local businesses and the community advocating for the school board to consider operating a College and Career Academy (CCA). Perhaps more significant than any variable related to the idea of establishing a CCA, and in the midst of upcoming historic budget cuts, is that the new program’s cost is not yet established.

Taking the lead on the presentation that included a sampling of business and community organization representatives was Peachtree City Council member Kim Learnard, who in the past several months has spearheaded the idea of establishing a CCA that could help local businesses acquire local, skilled labor to fill current and future employment rolls.

CCA consultant and Seamless Education Associates, Inc. CEO Russ Moore in a presentation to the school board said he had worked with 15 CCA applicants, of which 14 were successful.

While noting the positive potential of having a CCA program in Fayette County, school board member Leonard Presberg said the board is faced with having to solve the current issue of making the 2013-2014 budget balance.

“And to think about some kind of new program at the same time as we’re talking about having to close schools and redistricting and having fewer employees, it’s sort of hard to wrap your head around that,” Presberg said.

“I would love to be able to tell what it’s going to cost, to the penny,” Moore responded, noting that Fayette already has a significant investment in education and adding that a CCA would represent another source of state and federal revenue. He said a CCA program would be an investment, not an expense.

“The language in the charter will have something about decreasing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate. What we’re purporting to be able to prove by the time this summer rolls around, we believe we can find and prove that you can save money and you can make money,” Moore said.

Moore said he will bring a plan to the board in the near-term that will include the specifics of a CCA program, with both costs and revenues represented.

Also weighing in on the topic was board member Barry Marchman, who said he had looked but could not find any indication of costs or expenses of any career academy in the state.

“I’ll tell you why. It’s a shell game,” Moore said somewhat facetiously. “What is going on, and it’s frustrating to me too as a consultant, these schools don’t have school numbers. They are set up as programs. They are extensions of existing high school programs. They are also set up within school districts. They have a central budget, they do not have a school-specific budget. No principal I’ve met yet can tell me, ‘This is the budget for my high school.’”

Moore did say that he will put together a first-year budget, which could well be the first for a CCA, that will answer the questions of program, personnel, equipment maintenance and property.

Marchman followed up by asking how much money would need to be raised from the private sector to know that private enterprise is adequately committed before the school board commits to the CCA charter program.

Moore said that while he did not have a number in mind, and noting that the private sector has already stated its commitment, he cited examples of other CCAs that led him to believe that it is realistic to think that the funding that can be raised in the private sector can be in the millions of dollars and not in the thousands. Moore added that a place to start would be to begin thinking in terms of an endowment, so that the proceeds from the endowment could dramatically reduce the burden on the public sector to come up with operational funds.

“(A) significant endowment in the neighborhood of $10-20 million would almost replace the public sector operational funds for a single year,” Moore said.

Continuing the discussion, school board member Bob Todd asked that interim Superintendent Dan Colwell have a program analysis performed of the school system’s current career tech offerings.

It was Todd a few years ago who said that the need for career tech classes was increasing and that a survey of students and parents was needed to help students be prepared for a evolving workplace that continues to focus less on a four-year college degree. Todd’s request at the time went unheeded by the majority on the board.

Todd in making the request of Colwell on Jan. 7 said such an analysis has not been done in the past several years.

“Those (CCA) programs are going to have to interface, somehow, with the career tech program concept. We have 10 percent of our high school space committed to career tech,” Todd said, noting that the school system has more than 4,300 students currently enrolled in career tech classes. “So how we work this (existing career tech) structure into the other is really going to be a challenge, I think. It’s one we need to work on to figure out what’s best for our kids.”

Moore agreed, saying what he was proposing would likely help. Moore added that Fayette’s graduation rate last year was 94.5 percent while the career tech graduation rate approached 100 percent, saying that it is clear that what the school system is already doing is working, with half the population taking career tech classes.

“The bad news is that the drop-out rate is from the other half, almost certainly,” Moore said. “The plan we’re going to put forth is going to address that.”

Learnard earlier in the meeting said the state currently has a grant pool of $10 million for CCA start-up programs. Colwell followed up in the conversation by asking Moore what he thought Fayette’s chances might be for receiving a CCA grant. Moore in response said it is a competitive grant and, “I think you’re a lock,” adding that the process takes one to two years and the applicant pool is shrinking each year.

“Fayette brings a lot to the table,” Moore said, noting the county’s combination of community, industry and history.

Learnard at the outset of the meeting said the idea for the CCA is to build on the progress already experienced by the school system. She said the needs assessment being provided by area businesses is expected by the end of January.

A survey of students and parents is needed in time for a possible school board approval in June. If accomplished, state Dept. of Education approval could come in August, with the grant application submitted in September and a grant announcement in December, Moore said.

Russ Moore
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Clarification

As the consultant quoted accurately above (who thanks you for the fair reporting), I have the following additional information to share with any who are concerned about the costs of a college and career academy (CCA) in Fayette: 1. ALL CCAs in Georgia have been approved by local, elected boards of education and also by the Georgia Board of Education. ALL of those charters had five year budgets included, and those charter applications and budgets are a matter of public record. Our steering committee will publish links to the most recently approved charters soon and also make them directly available to the Fayette BOE.
2. It would be impossible to give a complete answer at this stage of planning to the question, "How much will a Fayette CCA cost?" for two important reasons: a) Our partners are still gathering the data we need to propose program and facility improvements, which will drive much of the planning for the next several months, and b) we have to make those plans in the context of the school system's own budget and resources, which is up to the school system to disclose and propose. Planning a CCA is not an external exercise; it is a partnership exercise, and the school system and BOE are full partners, if not the lead partners in terms of students and resources. So the answer to the budget question must be developed with FCS and FCBOE participation.

I am personally convinced that Fayette can develop a CCA charter application that improves student outcomes and has an efficient and affordable budget.

One correction: last year's Fayette adjusted cohort graduation rate (a new state calculation and the number to which I was referring) was 78%, not 94%. Since the graduation rate of CTAE students was nearly 100%, there is definitely room for improvement in dropouts district-wide by increasing the number of students connected to CTAE.