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Charter school’s possible closure raises questions about oversight

Tommie Henderson, executive director of the New Consortium of Law and Business, listens as district school board members discuss the future of the school.
Tommie Henderson, executive director of the New Consortium of Law and Business, listens as district school board members discuss the future of the school.
Caroline Bauman

Facing the prospect of closing a struggling charter school just days before the new school year is set to begin, Shelby County school board members are asking themselves whether their strategies to hold charter schools accountable do enough to safeguard students.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told board members on Tuesday that he is recommending they vote to shutter New Consortium of Law and Business, which has been investigated by district officials for multiple violations, including failing to pay its staff for the month of May and enrolling staff illegally in a non-district insurance plan.

That vote would come next week, on the same day that New Consortium is set to open registration for the school year. If board members sign off on Hopson’s proposal, the school’s 160 students would need to find a different school just weeks before the year starts.

“Our biggest concern is that the snafus will continue and we’ll have to shut it down in middle of the school year,” Hopson said. “But we’re aware that there are 160 families out there and we don’t want them scurrying around trying to find a school right before the year starts.”

Hopson walked the board members through a presentation that detailed the charter school’s infractions and said that the district sent letters to New Consortium parents last week to make them aware that the school might be shut down.

Board members said they were concerned that the notice came too late for students, parents, and teachers to make alternate plans for the year. They also asked why the district did not catch the infractions earlier. Teachers at the charter school first flagged the district of the violations.

“Based on what we’re presented, it makes all sense to revoke the charter,” said board member Chris Caldwell. “My biggest concern is that we communicate with parents immediately.”

Board Vice-Chairman Kevin Woods suggested that there be an audit system for charter schools in place so that the district can catch violations in the future.

Tommie Henderson, the charter school’s executive director, told Chalkbeat after the meeting that he wished he would have had the opportunity to speak to the board to answer their concerns, though he plans to speak at next week’s meeting. The financial issues resulted from mistakes that won’t be repeated, he said.

“During their investigation, we were never contacted, never asked questions,” said Henderson, who also started the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering in 2003, a charter school that has had its own ups and downs in recent years. “The issues they are speaking of arose from a temporary cash flow issue, which has been resolved. I want the board to know that we are financially capable and performing academically in strong ways.”

Only a quarter of the school’s students scored proficient on Tennessee’s reading and math tests in 2014, and the state’s formula for measuring student learning found that New Consortium students as a whole improved less than they should have.

Unusually, the board has not been asked to consider the school’s academic performance when deciding whether to revoke its charter.

But Henri Jones, who has a grandson at New Consortium of Law and Business, cited conditions inside the school when she told the board that would like the school to be shut down — even though she dreads the turmoil of trying to quickly find the 17-year-old a new school quickly.

“There’s been a lot of teacher turnover,” said Jones, whose grandson has been a student at the charter school for two years. “I’m starting to look at other charter schools because I don’t see this lasting.”

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