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Charter District?

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If charter schools are competition to most public school officials, Randy Bos has decided to throw in the towel. The superintendent of the 1,200-student Montabella school district in Edmore, Mich., has recommended that each of the district's five schools become charter schools.

Embracing Michigan's new charter school law, Bos says, will bring site-based management and increased accountability to the rural school system roughly 50 miles northwest of Lansing. "All the research that I've been able to dig into in the last 20 years shows that it works if you can give schools true authority rather than token authority," he says.

In January, the local school board voted 6-1 to pursue the superintendent's idea. The district will not make a final decision on the change until July. If it follows through on the plan, Montabella could become the first school district in the nation to undergo a whole-scale conversion to the charter approach.

Michigan is among the states that have recently enacted laws to encourage the creation of charter schools, which are independently designed and run but publicly funded. The concept has attracted many who see it as a way to reinvigorate the public schools.

But the idea of someone else running a local school is not an easy one for superintendents to swallow. "It's difficult to give up control," Bos admits. "But we're responsible for way too many decisions that we shouldn't be making."

Under the superintendent's plan, individual schools will have to write up charters by June for consideration by the board. If the charters are approved, all of the district's per-pupil money--$4,815 a student--would go to the individual schools. Each would then pay the district for administrative services, such as transportation and the superintendent's work. The school board would still exist as a fiscal agent with the authority to revoke a school's charter. According to Bos, all five schools could be operating independently by next fall.

Still, the superintendent is not sure that all of them will want to convert. "Principals are very, very excited," Bos says. But the Michigan Education Association, he adds, has been making some teachers fearful of the idea.

David Marston, principal of the district's 265-student Blanchard Elementary School, believes the plan would enable his staff to make decisions more efficiently. Teachers, he says, had been concerned about job security but were recently reassured that their bargaining agreements would stay in place under the charters. "It's something new," Marston says, "and it's not completely understood by any of us, so many questions can't be answered."

"We're certainly not filling anyone with any ideas yet," says Julius Maddox, president of the state teachers' union. "We will be working to seek more information about the proposal, and the local members will decide what position they want to take."

William Coats, president and chief executive officer of the Michigan Partnership for New Education, which promotes the creation of charter schools in the state, believes the plan would make the Montabella schools more sensitive and responsive to students' needs. "It could be the ultimate in site-based decisionmaking," he says.

--Laura Miller

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