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VOL. 126 | NO. 231 | Monday, November 28, 2011

Countywide Board Denies Charter Schools

By Bill Dries

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As the Thanksgiving holiday weekend began, the countywide school board had put the two public school systems’ long-held ambivalence about charter schools on a fast track to Nashville.

The board on Tuesday, Nov. 22, denied the applications of 17 charter schools for Shelby County’s two public school systems claiming the fiscal impact of the schools would be too much of a financial hardship on each system – city and county.

The financial hardship exception is a part of state law that requires each school system to cite specific numbers in terms of student enrollment impact as well as specific dollar figures. The Tennessee treasurer is the arbiter of whether there is a financial hardship the state will recognize.

Memphis City Schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash told the board the possibility of 14 new charter schools in a city system that already has 25 with two more starting next year would be too much for a system with charter school growth of one to three per year.

He said it is “glaringly clear that Memphis City Schools cannot now and in the future withstand the financial impact to the district that this many charter schools approved would have on the district.”

Cash estimated the fiscal impact on the MCS budget at $26 million that would have to be shifted from other areas.

Deputy superintendent Irving Hamer described the charter schools as an “unfunded mandate” from state government.

“We actually have never been able to afford it,” he added. “It will compromise the integrity of the operation of Memphis City Schools.”

Shelby County Schools officials had taken an even harder line on charter schools saying they didn’t fit the philosophy of the system. After the old county school board rejected a charter school application last year, the applicant appealed to the state. Tennessee education officials ordered the board to approve the charter school – the first and only in the system.

SCS officials will claim in their application that the two additional charter schools would have an impact of $3.5 million when added with the existing charter school.

The voice vote by the board governing the two still separate school systems was not unanimous but appeared to be well past the 12-vote majority needed.

Some board members said the bid for financial hardship materialized too quickly for them to vote based on a presentation the same night. Board member Vanecia Kimbrow said the proof was not adequate and she could not support the denial of charter schools that otherwise met benchmarks in the application process.

“They only leave our system when they have no other options,” Kimbrow said of parents who choose charter schools. “It is not my job to take that option or that choice away from anyone.”

Board member Jeff Warren, however, said the schools are a financial drain on conventional public schools that still must remain open and run buses even with the estimated 4,545 students Cash’s staff estimates would transfer out of those schools and among charter schools. That’s in a school system with 106,000 students kindergarten through 12th grade.

“We are locally dealing with a national political issue,” Warren argued. “We have legislators in Nashville that are being influenced by a national agenda that says charter schools are the way to go. I think as a local board we need to say … not now and not for Memphis.”

Board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. doubted the financial hardship bid would meet legal muster in Nashville. He said he understood the political and fiscal argument. But Whalum also countered that charter schools are a fact of life.

“I am tired of denying a life raft to any children so that they all can drown on the Titanic,” he said. “It’s about the law, colleagues. It’s not about how we feel about charter schools. It’s not us versus them. Charter schools are public schools no matter how hard it is for some of us to grasp it. They are all public schools.”

The action has the same basic effect as a moratorium on the approval of any new charter schools Warren had advocated before the board approved the two new KIPP Academy charter schools at its October meeting. Warren wanted to cite the coming consolidation of the two systems in the 2013-2014 school year in that appeal to state education officials.

He never moved forward with a vote on the idea. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam reacted to word of that earlier proposal saying he could see no reason to justify such a moratorium.

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