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Memphis charter schools signal willingness to give up cash for better oversight

Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.
Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.
Caroline Bauman

Five months after Shelby County Schools board appointed a group to thaw the ice between the district and the local charter sector, the effort appears to be working.

A consensus is forming that charter schools overseen by the district don’t always get the support they need — and those charter schools are signaling that they are even willing to pay to make it better.

That is significant because the district’s charter office employs just three full-time staff members, and officials say even with help from other departments, effective management of the growing sector is impossible without more funding. Next year, the district will have 52 charter schools educating more than 10 percent of its student population.

Tennessee’s state board and its state-run turnaround district, which also authorize charter schools, collect between 3 and 4 percent of the per-pupil funding for the schools they supervise to evaluate and monitor their progress. But the law doesn’t require charter schools authorized by local districts to pay such a fee.

Now, preliminary discussions in the advisory committee have moved past whether there should be a compulsory fee and turned to how much it should be.

“We want to pay something,” said Felicia Hartsfield, vice president and chief operating officer for Influence1 Foundation, which sponsors City University charter schools and already chooses to pay a fee to the district. At the same time, she said, “Tell us what we’re paying for.”

Right now, only six charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools choose to pay the authorizer fee. All of them opened in the early 2000s, and newer schools have opted not to pay the fee, leaving the charter office doing more with less — and district officials and operators such as Hartsfield alike deeming the situation inequitable.

“We feel like we’re footing the bill for the charter schools that aren’t paying anything,” Hartsfield said. “That could be another person on my payroll.”

In recent years, several local districts have asked state lawmakers to remedy the situation by requiring a fee, to no avail.

By allowing the state board and other authorizers to collect a fee, “The legislature has clearly articulated that they see a need,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation. “I’m a little puzzled why that is extended to the ASD and the state board and not to local districts.”

About 20 states nationwide allow local districts to charge authorizer fees ranging from 0.5 percent to 5 percent, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But if conversations continue as they have, Shelby County Schools might not have to seek state intervention at all.

Members of the charter advisory finance subcommittee discuss potential fees charter schools would pay Shelby County Schools.
Members of the charter advisory finance subcommittee discuss potential fees charter schools would pay Shelby County Schools.
Laura Faith Kebede

The committee’s discussions have also started to focus on what an improved version of the district’s charter-school office would look like.

Grant Monda heads Aurora Collegiate Academy, a charter school that has never paid Shelby County for its authorizing services. He said he’s willing to see that change — as long as the district is transparent about where the funds go.

“I think part of the challenge is we don’t know what it takes to do this,” Monda said this week, referring to the cost of growing the district’s capacity to monitor charter schools’ academic progress and financial responsibilities.

Shelby County Schools already has started making plans to improve. The district won approval earlier this week to hire a national organization to help improve its charter schools management.

Lin Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, said the fee should be based on what it will cost to make Shelby County Schools an effective overseer.

“What the budget is currently is insufficient,” Johnson told the subcommittee last week.

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