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VOL. 132 | NO. 152 | Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Commission Tries to Stop Charter School Plan

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County commissioners called on a charter school that planned to open in Memphis but instead wants to set up shop in Bartlett to stick by its original plan or put off opening Gateway University Charter School next week.

DAVID REAVES

The commission approved the resolution proposed by commissioner David Reaves on a 9-1 vote Monday, July 31. Two commissioners abstained from voting.

The Shelby County Schools board approved the application of Gateway earlier this year. It planned to open a Downtown school to serve students in North or South Memphis. But two weeks before the start of the school year, Gateway leaders said they would instead open the school in Bartlett because they had been unable to find space within Memphis.

While SCS approved the charter application, Bartlett City Schools has not.

“If we condone this, any LEA (local education agency) can approve a charter school and they can move into your particular school district and operate,” Reaves said. “That’s what we’re saying if we go along with it.”

The resolution approved by the commission is not legally binding, although some state legislators from Shelby County are reportedly seeking a legal opinion from Tennessee attorney general’s office. County commissioner Van Turner also has requested a legal opinion from the Shelby County attorney.

Among the legal questions is whether Gateway University Schools can depart from the specific plan approved by the SCS board by locating in Bartlett.

The resolution approved Monday calls on Gateway officials to “postpone the opening of its school until the next school year” to get a facility near the students it plans to serve. It also asked the Tennessee Department of Education to “seek a mandatory injunction compelling Gateway University Schools to comply with the plan of service and targeted recruitment area.”

Several commissioners said Gateway’s move exploited a “loophole” in a state law that SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson has complained has made the regulation of charter schools “like the wild West.”

HEIDI SHAFER

Commissioner Eddie Jones said he assumed Gateway still would be serving children from North Memphis and South Memphis without any impact on Bartlett’s school system, even though the school would be in Bartlett.

Commissioner Heidi Shafer expressed disbelief that Gateway couldn’t find a school site in North or South Memphis.

“Are you kidding me?” she said. “That raises a pretty big red flag.”

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who cast the only vote against the resolution, questioned why the commission would try to intervene.

“We may be getting out of our lane,” he said. “Why in the world are we getting involved in it?”

Reaves, a former SCS board member, said he introduced the resolution because the county has a primary interest in public education as the local funder of all seven public school systems in Shelby County and the only local funder of SCS.

In other action Monday, commissioners elected Shafer as the new chairwoman of the commission effective in September for a one-year term. Commissioner Willie Brooks was elected chairman pro tempore.

Shafer and Brooks were each unopposed in the election among commissioners.

It marks the second consecutive year that the chairman and chairman pro tempore have been elected without opposition, and comes in the last year of the four-year term of office of the current commission.

The commission has a much longer history of contentious races for chairman.

The 2015 selection of a chairman featured the commission reconsidering its election of Steve Basar about an hour after Basar won the post, and then resuming the selection process more than a month later after nine rounds of voting in which no one got a majority.

The eventual winner was Terry Roland.

For several years, the chairman was elected with a majority of votes from commissioners of the other party.

Shafer drew vocal opposition several years ago when she was appointed budget committee chairwoman by Roland, with Bailey calling for her removal as head of the key committee.

On Monday’s unanimous vote for Shafer as chairwoman, Bailey said she had “really evolved from what I consider to be a partisan position.”

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