LOA: Only 7 kids are not Greene residents

The Lake Oconee Board of Governors at a special meeting on Monday, May 15. (left to right) Governors Kim Larkin, Fatima Fields, James Brooks, CEO Otho Tucker, Board Chair Mark Lipscomb, Governors Richard Schmidt, Byron Lombard, David Mapp and Connie Hoyle.



Mark Engel




There will not be a second lottery drawing for admission into Lake Oconee Academy.


The lottery on April 5 filled 69 open positions at the highly-rated charter school. Last week, LOA CEO Otho Tucker told the Lake Oconee News that “possibly 16” of the positions were filled by children who lived outside of Greene County. Now there are apparently only seven.


Since its inception 10 years ago, LOA has allowed non-residents to apply for admission but, if selected, they would be required to establish residency in Greene County before the child would be admitted.


This year, complaints from Greene County residents whose children were not selected led to a Georgia Department of Education ruling that non-residents should not be included in the lottery. LOA was told on May 9, five weeks after the drawing, to notify non-resident winners that their positions would be revoked.


The DOE ordered a second lottery for those positions, using only a pool of Greene County residents who had applied.


At a special called meeting of the LOA Board Monday night, it was announced that the DOE and LOA agreed to fill the slots with Greene County residents who were on the lottery wait list instead of conducting a second drawing.


LOA Attorney Richard Schmidt also announced that after scrutinizing the list of people picked in the lottery, there were only seven people who could not prove residency in Greene County.


Schmidt added that the 29 new positions authorized by the Greene County Board of Education last week were already anticipated in the April 5 lottery so those will not be additional openings.


Louis Erste, Associate Superintendent for Policy, Charter Schools, District Flexibility, and Governmental Affairs for the Georgia Department of Education told the Lake Oconee News Tuesday night that LOA will still be required to submit paperwork by May 25, proving they complied with the residency requirement.


“The deadline for information still stands,” said Erste.


Special Program


But there’s more. In a surprise move, the Board also announced that the seven students who were selected but lived out of the county, will be offered a “separate program” created for them for the 2017-2018 school year.


“State presented it to us,” Schmidt told the Lake Oconee News. “It’s a workable plan in a bad situation.”


The LOA Board hired an Atlanta law firm, McGuireWoods, to help them create the program that would be funded only with private money. No public money would be used and the students will not be required to pay a tuition. Neither LOA nor the Greene County School System would lose any state funding, according to LOA Board member David Mapp,


“It’s more so an effort to insulate the school,” Mapp explained to the audience, “so we’re not liable for the type of implications and litigations that potentially come.”


In an “open letter to the people of Greene County and beyond” released after the meeting, the school said that since the lottery on April 5, “persons who were accepted in the lottery have quit their jobs and moved to Greene County, have bought new properties here in Greene County or have signed leases. In other words, they have relied in good faith to their detriment.”


Appealing to Attorney General


But this doesn’t mean the school is acquiescing to the state DOE. The LOA Board also voted to use the McGuireWoods law firm to help them seek an opinion from Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr on whether or not LOA can include non-Greene County residents in future admissions lotteries.


Erste told the Lake Oconee News in an email statement on Tuesday that “once we receive LOA’s request to seek an AG opinion, the Department will determine whether it will seek such an opinion.”


Just as strongly as LOA believes it’s position is correct, Erste believes LOA is wrong.


“Both the State Board of Education/Georgia Department of Education and the State Charter Schools Commissions agree,” he wrote, “that students must be resident in a charter school’s attendance zone to be eligible to participate in that school’s enrollment lottery.”



Why non-residents?


In an interview on May 10, the day following the DOE ruling, Schmidt said it’s important to the county for LOA to be able to attract people who live elsewhere.


“If people from outside the county can come here then it’s a huge leg up in the economic development process,” Schmidt said. “It is a huge leg up in our ability to attract quality teachers. So, we don’t have to hijack quality teachers from our Greene County school system.”


More than 50 people attended Monday’s LOA Board meeting. Some point out that adding non-residents to the lottery pool lowers their child’s chances of being selected.


On Facebook, Trent Smith posted this comment. “If people so desire to send their kids to LOA then buy a house here and take your chances like we as tax payers have done, or should be doing...I’m all about growth of the area, more jobs, better education for our kids, etc....other school systems don't bend the rules to boost growth, the people move there for better education [which] in turn boosts growth.”


A post from Jessica Short says “We have paid taxes so, sure, our kids should have first choice. “


“In our country,” LOA Attorney Schmidt told the Lake Oconee News, “you don’t get to make that argument legally because we have something called the Equal Protection Act. You’re not allowed to discriminate against people in that way. You’re just not.”


Pre-K exception


The LOA Pre-Kindergarten program is not included in the ban against non-residents being included in the lottery.


On May 10, Tucker said that four of the 44 children selected in the lottery for the Pre-K program were from outside of Greene County. They will be allowed to remain in Pre-K, according the LOA attorney Schmidt.


The DOE’s Erste agrees. “Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning oversees pre-K,” he said.


The LOA charter does give special preference for enrollment to Kindergarten to “children who matriculate from a pre-kindergarten program which is associated with the school.”

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