Shelby County Schools is recommending the closure of a charter school situated in a Memphis suburb, outside the district’s limits.
Gateway University High School, which just concluded its first year, found building space in Bartlett just two weeks before the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year. The charter school’s leader, Sosepriala Dede, had planned to open in downtown Memphis, but had trouble finding a suitable space there.
Dede, the founder, president and CEO of Gateway, told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the school is just days away from securing a facility in Memphis. The charter network has signed a letter of intent — but not yet a lease — for a building now occupied by National College on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Dede said.
“We’re aware we needed to move. We have every intent to be within [the district’s] boundaries this fall,” he said, adding his team vetted “at least a dozen” buildings this year before settling on this one.
Tennessee’s attorney general in September said charter schools do not have authority to open outside the district in which they were authorized. And earlier this year, the state legislature passed a law requiring charter schools to secure school buildings inside their home district’s borders.
In a September letter, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen directed Shelby County Schools to “support Gateway’s effort” to relocate within the district’s boundaries based on the attorney general’s opinion. The decision to locate Gateway in Bartlett also drew opposition from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for district schools.
Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the district also warned Gateway that if it did not find a building within district boundaries by May 31, he would recommend revoking its charter.
“You have the commissioner getting an attorney general opinion, saying you guys gotta move; you have our contract that says you got to be in our boundary, and third, you now have a Tennessee code saying you’ve got to do this,” Leon said. “And despite all of that, the leadership at Gateway hasn’t been able to do this yet.”
The recommendation will be on the agenda for the school board’s work session Tuesday. A vote would follow on June 26. Dede was part of the Tennessee Charter School Center’s fellowship to train leaders of new schools. He is also is a former charter network leader for Gestalt Community Schools and a former principal at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School when Gestalt operated it.
Below you can read the letter Shelby County Schools sent to Gateway’s board chair Anthony Brown on June 1.
Update, June 15, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent Shelby County Schools in regards to Gateway and copies of correspondence between Shelby County Schools, Gateway, and the Tennessee Department of Education.