School Choice

Shelby County board expected to close one Memphis school, revoke charter on another

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A boarded-up Orleans Elementary School is among Memphis schools closed since 2012.

In a district plagued by shrinking funding and enrollment, proposals to close schools have become an annual rite of spring for Shelby County Schools, where the school board is again faced with the prospect of shuttering more Memphis campuses.

This spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has recommended closing two more schools at the close of the school year. However, based on discussions during last week’s board work session, the proposed closures appear to be more clear-cut than the emotionally charged closings of past years.

No protest signs were waved and the crowd was light. The work session was held during the district’s spring break week but, even so, board members didn’t dispute recommendations by Hopson’s administration.

The school board is expected on Tuesday evening to approve the closure of Memphis Health Careers Academy and to begin the process of revoking a charter that will close the two campuses of New Consortium for Law and Business. The latter is a district-authorized charter school operated by SMART Schools Inc., and Hopson has recommended for a second straight year that its charter be revoked. Last July, the board voted narrowly to give the operator a one-year reprieve to address complaints of mismanagement.

The board also is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a massive maintenance deferral plan that identifies and prioritizes $476 million in critical facility repairs for the next five years.

Twenty Memphis schools have been shuttered since 2012, including three last year as the cash-strapped district dealt with a $125 million deficit. Hopson announced last week that the district faces an $86 million budget gap next fiscal year, up from an earlier estimate of $72 million, and he is proposing $50 million in cuts.

Beyond the two school closings recommended in a March 22 report, district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent said she was not aware of the school system exploring additional closings this year.

Memphis Health Careers Academy opened in 2008 with a goal of maintaining a 250-student enrollment and equipping students for certification for a career in health-related fields. But the current enrollment is just 74 students, and only three students left the school with any type of certification last school year.

Additionally, the academy achieved a TVAAS growth score of only 2 out of 5 last school year, down from a 4 the previous school year.

“With the Memphis Health Careers Academy, most importantly is that the academic performance is not consistent with its mission,” said Hopson, noting that the school employs 17 educators to teach 74 students. “That’s not, in our judgment, an efficient use of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Shelby County Schools authorized the charter for New Consortium for Law and Business in 2013 as a school of excellence for law and business education. But the school has struggled with enrollment, standardized test scores and teacher turnover. Last year, Hopson recommended closure following a district investigation for multiple violations, including failing to pay its staff for an entire month and enrolling staff illegally in a non-district insurance plan. However, board members were reticent to close the school as a new school year was about to begin, which would have forced parents to scramble to find a new school late in the enrollment process.

“At the time, our board was clear that, if the infractions continued, we would come back in March; we would move forward with the discussion of revoking the charter,” Hopson said.

District leaders say that, since that time, the consortium has continued to violate both state statutes and its charter agreement with Shelby County Schools, including accusations that the school failed to file financial audits for a second consecutive year, listed at least two students as enrolled last year while they were enrolled in other schools, failed to enter student attendance data for the first 48 days of this year, and assigned students to a teacher who did not teach them.

In addition, the school scored only 1 out of 5 in TVAAS growth for both 2014 and 2015, and its academic performance puts it in the bottom 3 percent of all schools in the state, according to district documents.

In an open letter to board members, school founder and executive director Tommie Henderson accused the district of “reckless behavior” and efforts to disrupt school operations. Shelby County Schools “strategically works against our charter school,” Henderson wrote.

Hopson said he “utterly disputes” Henderson’s accusations.

The district has scheduled community meetings next month to guide parents through their options if the closures are approved. Meetings on the consortium are planned for April 7 and April 14, and a meeting on the academy is set for April 12.

The five-year deferred maintenance plan would set priorities through 2021 based on an architectural assessment of district-owned buildings that total 22 million square feet. Roofing repairs alone would cost more than $67 million, fire systems and electronic intercoms warrants another $59 million.

The advanced age of many buildings was an important factor as the assessment found more than $476 million in needed repairs, noting that “many building systems and structure are original … and have far exceeded their life expectancy.” In fact, out of 182 schools in the district, 143 are 40 years or older, the assessment said.

Tennessee is one of 12 states that does not provide state funding toward facility maintenance and construction, according to a new report. The same report estimates the government is spending $46 billion less a year than is needed to ensure students have safe and environmentally sound schools.

Tough talk

State ed officials rip into ‘insulting’ SUNY charter proposal and ‘outrageous’ Success Academy chair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

The state’s top two education officials did not pull punches at a panel Wednesday that touched on everything from last weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville to recent charter school debates.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia took an uncharacteristically combative position against SUNY’s proposal to let some charter schools certify their own teachers — arguing it would denigrate the teaching profession and is not in the best interest of children.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the proposal, which would require 30 hours of classroom instruction for prospective teachers. “Think about what you would do. Would you put your children there?”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denounced Success Academy’s board chair, Daniel Loeb, whose racially inflammatory comment about state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drew headlines, and pointedly referred to New York City officials’ reluctance to talk about school segregation.

Wednesday’s conversation was sprawling, but its discussion of race and education had a particular urgency against the national backdrop of Charlottesville — and the president’s reluctance to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists in its aftermath.

The following are some of the most charged moments of the panel, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and hosted by City & State:

Segregation — “you’ve got to name it”

In response to a question about New York City’s diversity plan, which was widely criticized for not using the word “segregation,” Rosa suggested the city should have gone further.

“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”

Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.

“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.

Dan Loeb — “absolutely outrageous”

Loeb ignited a firestorm over the past week with a Facebook post that said people like Stewart-Cousins, an African-American New York State Senator he called loyal to unions, have caused “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. (He has since taken down the post and apologized.)

Rosa strongly condemned the comments in the same breath as she denounced the violence in Charlottesville, and said children of color at Success Academy would be “better served” without Loeb leading the board.

“I am outraged on every single level,” she said. “Comparing the level of commitment of an African-American woman that has given her time and her commitment and dedication, to compare her to the KKK. That is so absolutely outrageous.”

Elia seemed to pick up on another part of Loeb’s statement, which referred to “union thugs and bosses.”

“For anyone to think that we can be called thugs,” Elia said. “People [do] not realize the importance of having a quality teacher in front of every child.”

SUNY proposal — “insulting”

SUNY Charter Schools Institute released a proposal in July that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers. The certification would require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

But as the requirements currently stand, both Elia — who compared the training to that of fast food workers — and Rosa took aim.

“No other profession, not the lawyers who are sitting in that SUNY Institute, would accept that in their own field. So if you don’t accept it for your very own child, and you don’t accept it for your very own profession, then you know what? Don’t compromise my profession. I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said.

Joseph Belluck, the head of SUNY’s charter school committee, said earlier this month that the committee is considering revising those requirements before the draft comes to the board for a vote. But he fired back after Rosa and Elia bashed the proposal on Wednesday.

“Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa are proponents of the status quo,” Belluck said in an emailed statement. They have “no substantive comments on our proposal — just slinging arrows. Today, they even denigrated the thousands of fast food workers who they evidently hold in low esteem.”

on the record

Eva Moskowitz sends letter calling Success board chair’s comments ‘indefensible’ — but also defending his record

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy

In response to widespread criticism of a racial comment made by Success Academy’s chairman, the leader of the charter network, Eva Moskowitz, sent a letter Tuesday to parents, teachers and staff.

In the letter, Moskowitz used strong language to condemn Daniel Loeb’s comments. On Facebook last week, Loeb wrote that Andrea Stewart-Cousins, an African-American state senator whom he called loyal to unions, does “more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Loeb later apologized and deleted the comment.

In today’s letter, Moskowitz called the comments “indefensible,” “insensitive” and “hurtful,” a more aggressive rebuke than her previous statement.

Yet she also defended Loeb’s track record in the letter, pointing out his commitment to Success and various social causes. A spokeswoman for Success Academy confirmed that Loeb remains the board’s chairman.

The racist violence that ensued this past weekend in Charlottesville put an even more damaging spin on his comments. At a rally Monday to support Stewart-Cousins, the Senate’s minority leader, she made the connection between her situation and the events in Charlottesville.

“That is extremely hurtful given the legacy, certainly, of people of color — my ancestors,” said Stewart-Cousins. “We all got a chance to see it in Charlottesville, what that represents.”

Moskowitz made a veiled reference to the weekend’s events in the letter, saying that engaging students is “all the more important in the face of the broader trauma and crisis we are facing as a country.”

Here is the full text of the letter: