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Alternative ed sites not likely to be approved

COVINGTON -- Students in the alternative education program in the Newton County School System might have to take their classes at the old Sharp Learning Center building longer than originally thought.

An Ombudsman official said Wednesday that the company likely will have to come up with another game plan to find a location in Newton County.

"The state (Department of Education) is not likely to grant NCSS the code needed to open the centers even though all appropriate local zoning permits had been secured," said John Wacha, assistance vice president of center operations for Ombudsman, a national provider of alternative education that NCSS contracted with earlier this year to provide services to students.

One day before the 2011-12 school year began, NCSS and Ombudsman learned that the state delayed approval of two Newton County sites selected for the program -- a west location at 13015 Brown Bridge Road, Suite 610, in the Publix Plaza near Salem Road in Covington and an east location at 10154 Carlin Drive near Johnny's Pizza at the Covington Bypass in Covington.

At the time, NCSS would not elaborate on why the state would not approve the sites. On Wednesday, RaNae Fendley, director of Student Services at NCSS, said that the sites were not approved due to proximity to a business that sells alcoholic beverages. This is not allowed under Georgia law.

"Every year, when we open new sites, the state tweaks some things," Wacha said about changes in state law this year. "This has never happened to us before. We were hoping we could get by the restriction."

Ombudsman provides alternative education in about 25 school systems and nearly 50 sites in Georgia and more throughout the United States.

He said the sites were approved locally when obtaining the certificate of occupation and zoning. Fendley said that once the sites were approved by the Newton County Office of Planning & Zoning department, then NCSS submitted all information to the GaDOE to receive a facilities code, which ultimately has not been approved.

"Most Ombudsman centers are located in commercial areas because we seek to provide a convenient, comfortable, safe and appropriate learning environment for our students," Wacha said, adding that the company also looks for nice areas for locations. "Because we are located primarily in retail shopping centers, some of our centers are near grocery or drug stores that sell alcohol, but others are not. In all cases, local zoning requirements were met and appropriate state facility codes were secured."

Fendley said this came as a surprise to NCSS since many Ombudsman sites throughout Georgia, including ones that NCSS administrators and members of the Newton County Board of Education visited earlier this year before approving the change, were housed in similar locations.

In the meantime, the 109 students currently enrolled in the program will remain housed at the former Sharp location.

"Our most important concern is that the kids are being served," Wacha said. "It hasn't changed bus transportation, it hasn't changed instruction, it just changed the location."

Fendley said that NCSS and Ombudsman have agreed that Ombudsman will pay for utility costs at Sharp until the program is able to relocate to other facilities. Additionally, Wacha said that his staff has provided some upgrades in electricity and elsewhere in the Sharp building in order to provide normal services.

The program is designed so that about 70 percent of the curriculum is computer-based with the other portion being teacher-led instruction and remediation. Students attend three- or four-hour sessions each weekday and follow the NCSS calendar.

NCSS planned to save $1,941,962 by eliminating the Sharp Learning Center alternative education program and contracting with Ombudsman to provide the alternative education services.

With the Ombudsman program, NCSS expects to spend $1,245,500 on alternative education. This includes $354,000 in tuition for 60 middle school slots and $798,000 for 140 high school slots, as well as $93,500 for transportation.

Although Ombudsman staff and its hired moving companies provided relocation services to the old Sharp building, NCSS crews provided cleaning services, which Ombudsman now will maintain.

NCSS had no other plans for the Sharp facility this school year. For several years, it has been phased out of state funding, meaning that state dollars cannot be used for repairs and updates, but it is still owned by NCSS and can be used by the system as it has been in the past.