County Schools Weighs Charter Rent Waiver

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson is considering waiving rent payments by charter schools that lease the school system’s old buildings in return for them taking all children in an area and coordinating their location with Shelby County Schools.

But the idea drew some opposition on the Shelby County Schools board Tuesday, Jan. 28, as Hopson talked it through. Hopson said he will develop a proposal and take it to the board for a vote later.

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson is considering waiving rent payments by charter schools that lease old buildings.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

His idea is to waive the rent but have charter school operators pay a maintenance fee in return for a guarantee that the charter schools will take all children living in the area “and don’t cherry pick.”

They would also agree to work with the school system on the best location for their schools.

“If you are a high-performing charter school and you take all our kids and you strategically pair with us in the areas where we need some help, I’m comfortable,” Hopson said of the decision to waive a rental payment.

He brought up the subject because the Tennessee General Assembly is considering legislation that would set a single statewide standard for such a fee and whether school systems can charge rent. The legislation is a reaction to different rules in different parts of the state.

Hopson said a factor in his proposal is the competition between Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District for charter operators.

“To the extent we are competing with the ASD in recruiting high-performing charters, if I’m a charter, I would say I’d rather go with the ASD,” Hopson said, noting the Achievement School District doesn’t charge rent and Shelby County Schools is barred by state law from charging ASD schools rent or for utilities. “I think the benefits of charging the administrative fee uniformly and the benefits we get for not charging rent probably outweigh the money we bring in on the rent.”

School board member Teresa Jones, however, didn’t agree. She wants to see figures on the fee and how much money the school system would lose from dropping the rent.

“I thought there was a process and I thought there was some consistency,” she said of the rent and fee contracts for traditional charter schools that are not part of the Achievement School District.

“Charters are not all equal. The ASD charters operate on a totally different set of rules,”

she said. “The competition level, I’ve always maintained, is not the same. An ASD charter has to take all children. Traditional charters don’t.”

School board chairman Kevin Woods said waiving rent with strings attached could create incentives for local charter school operators with the same goals as the school system.

“There are a number of leaders who have worked in our schools who we should be out saying you can run a great school,” he said. “Why should he pay rent if we can offer him an incentive to educate our kids? The ASD is bringing in million-dollar recruiters. Who are we hurting? At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to.”

School system attorney Valerie Speakman said locating charter schools in closed Shelby County Schools buildings is “complex” on several fronts.

She cited the example of an unidentified charter operator who wanted to move into a recently closed school building although the school system advised against it because of utility costs.

“That charter school insisted upon moving into that school, and now they’ve got a $14,000 a month utility bill that they are refusing to pay,” she said. “Now we are back on the hook for financial reasons.”

The use of school buildings closed by Shelby County Schools is about to become a more visible issue.

Hopson will prepare a final recommendation for the board on school closings after the school system completes a series of town hall meetings at the affected schools this month. The preliminary list includes 13 schools. The board could vote on the final recommendation in February, with the closings taking effect with the 2014-2015 school year.

Meanwhile, the Shelby County Schools board is again on record as opposing schools voucher legislation in the Tennessee Legislature as it did last year. The board approved that part of its legislative wish list Tuesday evening on a 4-2 vote. A move by school board member Chris Caldwell to put t’he board on record as supporting what is Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher proposal was voted down.