second chances

Second look at charter law could leave city with unexpected rent bill

Hyde Leadership Charter School, a K-12 school that moved into a private facility in 2012. Hyde is one of more than 60 New York City charter schools that operate in private space.

When Michael Duffy opened Great Oaks Charter School in a shuttered Catholic school building last year, he assumed he’d continue to pay rent as Great Oaks expanded, year by year, to eventually serve grades 6 through 12.

Starting this year, however, he’s hoping the city will pick up the tab.

Duffy’s newfound optimism comes months after the passage of a new state law that seemed to offer little to schools like his. The legislation grants some charter schools a right to publicly-funded space, but lawmakers said then that it would only help brand-new schools or schools that decided to apply for a new charter to add grades.

“The initial conclusion that I had was that it wouldn’t apply to Great Oaks because it would only apply to new schools,” said Duffy, who is the president of the Great Oaks Foundation. “I kind of put the issue aside.”

That changed in June, when the New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman told charter leaders that he interpreted the law differently. And if the city accepts that reading of the law — or if the interpretation holds up in a legal dispute — the city could be on the hook for millions of dollars more in rent than it expected.

Merriman told school leaders that the law could also be read to include charter schools in private space that are adding grades under their current plans, like Great Oaks. The Center’s guidance on the law has encouraged schools to request that assistance from the city beginning this year, triggering a process that could mean big savings for the 45 charter schools that the Center says are still growing in private space.

Because charter schools don’t receive facilities funding, schools in private space receive about 20 percent less funding than district schools and charter schools that are co-located in city-owned buildings. The gap means school leaders often use their operating budgets or fundraise to pay for rent and utilities.

Covering those costs would have far-reaching financial implications for the city, which is already facing a squeeze from the unambiguous part of the law, which states the city must provide space or funding to brand-new charter schools. The city could have to pay out more than $5 million in rent for private space for the 5,000 students who will attend charter schools opening in 2015-16.

For Great Oaks,the rent subsidy would amount to $2,755.40 for each of the 110 seventh-grade students who are being added to the school in the fall, according to the Charter Center. The subsidy would increase yearly with each new grade, excluding the original sixth-grade class.

To avoid those costs, the city could provide its own public space to schools, although that would bring about its own set of space-sharing issues.

The dilemma could set the stage for another unwanted showdown for the de Blasio administration, which has sought to downplay its differences with the charter school sector, especially the smaller schools that tend to operate in private space. Earlier this year, de Blasio’s decision to roll back three space-sharing plans for Success Academy charter schools resulted in weeks of negative advertising from advocacy groups that were closely aligned with Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz.

“De Blasio doesn’t want to get back into denying charter schools of public space,” said Brooklyn College education professor David Bloomfield.

A spokeswoman for the department said the city has received about two dozen requests from charter schools for access to facilities, but that includes schools slated to open for the 2015-16 school year. No requests have been ruled out yet, she said.

The city now has five months to respond to the requests. Duffy submitted a request for space in late June, meaning he might not get a response until nearly three months into the school year.

Daniel Rubenstein, executive director of Brooklyn Prospect, whose expanding elementary and high schools plan to add seven grades between the two schools over the next several years, also said he requested access to facilities.

“This relief will allow us to put every dollar possible from our budget in what matters the most: our classrooms,” Rubenstein said in a statement.

The process begins with a request for public space, but the department could respond with a proposal to cover rent in a school’s private facility. Under the law, schools can appeal any decision if they feel it is not “reasonable, appropriate, and comparable.”

Not all schools adding grades next year are planning to start that process, though. Some school leaders said they weren’t aware that the option existed. Phyllis Siwiec, who runs Global Community Charter School in Harlem, which will add two grades before it reaches capacity, said she had been under the impression that the law “did not apply to current charters.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Joshua Morales, who misrepresented his position with Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School. That quote has been removed.

 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede