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Shelby County Schools board members David Pickler and David Reaves were not happy that the board voted to give a lease to a charter school group with no proven academic record.

Oliver Morrison

Board debates whether money or academics should determine charter school expansion

The Shelby County Schools board leased a contested building to a new charter school with no academic track record because it was willing to pay more money than a charter school with five years of proven academic results.

The contentious decision brought into sharp relief the need for a coherent district policy that determines which charter schools get first dibs on empty school buildings, board members and the superintendent said Tuesday. With the likelihood that its charter sector will grow while the district continues to move out of school buildings in an effort to consolidate strained resources,  several board members said Tuesday they planned to hold a special meeting to develop a policy within the next month.

The board granted the year-old W.E.B. Dubois Consortium of Charter Schools, which faced several controversies last year, a $693,390.90 lease to the former Lanier Middle School building despite the objections of several board members who were angry it was chosen without any academic data to support the decision. TCAP scores won’t be publicly released until later this month, so W.E.B. DuBois didn’t have test results for board members to examine.

“Now we don’t know what the hell we are getting,” board member David Reaves was overheard saying to district administrators after Tuesday’s meeting.

Freedom Preparatory Academy had also tried to lease the space but decided that the price the district was asking would be too high for the number of students it currently serves.

This was the first time that two charter schools had been vying to lease the same space in the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson admitted that Freedom Preparatory Academy has five more years of data demonstrating strong academic results, but given the district’s significant financial needs, he offered the space to to W.E.B. Dubois instead.

“We started from the premise that the two charter schools were essentially offering the same thing, absent a policy,” Hopson said.

Board member David Pickler said that he thought the superintendent’s reasoning was backwards and that the board should offer preferences to charter schools with proven results, rather than those who offered the most money for a lease. “I hope I’m hearing that wrong,” he said.

“One school is offering five bucks a square foot, the other one a dollar,” said Hopson. “More importantly [W.E.B. Dubois’] plan is to purchase the building.” 

In the past the board had asked Hopson to take into consideration the impact of leaving empty buildings in already-blighted neighborhood, giving W.E.B. Dubois’ lease-purchase agreement a leg up.

Freedom Preparatory Academy is currently located in the former Lakeview School but “was busting at the seems this year,” according to board Chairman Cardell Orrin. Orrin thinks Freedom Preparatory would better be able to serve its students by moving into a single building such as Lanier, as it grows from a school that serves grades 6-9 to a school that serves grades 6-12. Freedom Preparatory was one of three middle schools in the state to be recognized by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education in 2013 for its strong academic record.

But the district was asking Freedom Preparatory to pay rent that would’ve worked out to be about 30 percent of the amount of money it brings in from the state at its current enrollment, according to Orrin. So Freedom Preparatory decided not to accept the district’s proposed lease and will instead split its school into two different sites in the coming year, one of which will be in a church.

“We’re disappointed,” Orrin said about Tuesday’s decision.

The W.E.B DuBois Consortium, led by former mayor Willie Herenton, has faced several major challenges in its first year including having to close a middle and high school it had opened in the district’s former Northside High School.

It is currently paying back around a half million dollars that it owed to Shelby County Schools after it over-projected the number of students it would enroll last year by a wide margin, according to the district CFO Alicia Lindsey.

Multiple board members said the repayment agreement with Herenton was bad business and similar agreements should be voted on by the board in the future. “If somebody owes you money you don’t do business with them,” said board member Billy Orgel.

The first time a vote was called on the proposed lease to W.E.B. Dubois, there were only two votes in favor after six votes had been tallied and it looked like it would fail. But just before the final vote was spoken, Hopson made it clear that, with less than three weeks before the start of school, 600 students from W.E.B. Dubois wouldn’t have a school building and the board would have to meet again to find another location for those students.

The motion passed with four votes in favor, the minimum needed for a motion to pass.

Chris Caldwell, Teresa Jones, Billy Orgel and Kevin Woods voted for the motion while Pickler and Reaves voted against it. Shante Avant abstained.

Four individuals who identified themselves as representatives of W.E.B Dubois left the board meeting right after the motion passed, but declined to comment, other than to say they were relieved that it passed.

“It was pretty touch and go for a minute,” one of them said in the parking lot.

Avant abstained from both votes, saying she had heard from worried parents  in her district at both charter schools. “Freedom Preparatory has a proven track record while parents at W.E.B Dubois are waiting to find out what school their child will attend,” said Avant. “It’s a hard decision. We need policies in place and not make these decisions on a case by case basis.”

Avant is facing reelection in less than a month.

In the long term Pickler said that there very may well be 40, 50, or even 60 charter schools in the district and the board needs to call a special meeting to clarify its position. “[Charter schools] are becoming the 8th district” in Shelby County, said Pickler after the meeting. “And we’ve been dealing with it on an ad hoc basis.”

Hopson rebutted the view that Memphis will become a charter school district. “I hope we don’t turn into New Orleans…When you really dig into the numbers, if charter schools were performing significantly different than our schools, then that would be a different discussion.”

In other actions, the board agreed to let Vision Preparatory Charter School move into the former Riverview Elementary.

The board also approved the opening of seven new charter schools in 2015, including Aspire, Excel Center, Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation, Leadership Prep, Libertas, MASS, Sankore Collegiate.

They denied four amended charter school applications: Emerge Collegiate Schools, Memphis Global Leadership Academy for Architecture and Urban Design, Military Academy of Culture and Technology, and Scholastic Academy of Logistics and Transportation Middle School.