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VOL. 126 | NO. 229 | Wednesday, November 23, 2011

School Board Claims Financial Hardship In Rejecting Charter Schools

By Bill Dries

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The countywide school board 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 school system – city and county.

The organizations seeking the charter schools had all applied in October and were rejected then because the schools didn’t meet benchmarks scored on a matrix system. They reapplied with amended applications and 14 of the 17 met the benchmarks while three failed again.

Memphis City Schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken each recommended denying the applications and claiming financial hardship under a provision in state law that allows for charter schools.

Of the 17 total, 14 were reapplications for charter schools in MCS and three were for SCS.

State law gives each school system five days from its rejection on financial hardship to make its case to the state treasurer.

In their application to the state, MCS officials are expected to claim that specifically that granting the 12 applications that met the benchmarks would cause the transfer of 4,545 students out of conventional city schools and from other charter schools. The school system would also lose an estimated 1,296 in the next school year not counting the impact of the new charter schools.

Cash told board members the charter schools would mean an additional $26 million in MCS funding for those schools that would have to be made up with budget cuts in other areas.

SCS officials will claim in their application that the two charter schools that met the benchmarks would have an impact of $3.5 million dollars when added with the one charter school now in the county school system.

Cash argued that when the Tennessee legislature removed the cap on the number of charter schools in the state completely earlier this year, it created an “unfunded mandate” for local public school systems.

Memphis already had more charter schools at 25 than any other school district in the state. But the growth had been at a rate of 1-3 a year which Cash said the school system had budgeted for.

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

The part of state law that sets up the financial hardship rejections requires specific head counts and dollar figures.

The voice vote by the board was not unanimous but appeared to be well past the 12 vote majority needed on the 23 member board. Some board members said the bid for financial hardship materialized too quickly for them to vote based on a presentation the same night. Others said charter schools are a reality.

Still other board members said they supported charter schools but faulted state legislators for failing to realize that students who leave conventional public schools to attend charter schools leave schools that still have the same expenses to operate and run buses that existed before the exodus.

The action has the same basic effect as a moratorium on the approval of new charter schools that board member Jeff Warren had advocated before the board approved the two new KIPP Academy charter schools at its October meeting.

Warren never moved forward with a vote on his proposal. 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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