Months of negotiations between a Memphis charter school and its landlord, Shelby County Schools, over a leaky roof ended Tuesday with a compromise.

The school district will spend $165,000 for the labor needed to repair the roof in the Frayser school’s cafeteria. The charter school, Libertas School of Memphis, will kick in a smaller amount for materials.

And other repairs to the school building — which was Brookmeade Elementary School until Libertas assumed operations through the state-run Achievement School District in 2015 — will be delayed until Shelby County Schools releases a long-awaited assessment of its facilities this fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said at a school board meeting.

The roof repair is a microcosm of issues between Shelby County Schools and the charters that operate in district-owned buildings. When those schools move into buildings that have gone without repairs for a long time, they must either pay for repairs on their own or persuade the cash-strapped district to make improvements.

Water damage from roof leak at the cafeteria entrance at Libertas School of Memphis. (Photo by Laura Faith Kebede)
Water damage from roof leak at the cafeteria entrance at Libertas School of Memphis. (Photo by Laura Faith Kebede)

Since opening, Libertas has routinely used industrial vacuums to clean up water after big rains. The operator has already poured more than $200,000 worth of improvements into other parts of the building and offered to borrow money to get the roof repairs done quickly and wait for reimbursement from the district.

Then last month, district leaders announced a plan to allocate $12,000 for repairs, only a tiny fraction of what was needed. Principal Bob Nardo said at the time that $135,000 would be enough to fix the worst damage. He also said that despite the delay, the district had made a good-faith effort to find a solution.

Some board members have said Libertas should not have been allowed to move into a building that needed so much work, and the district has taken steps to avoid repeating the Libertas scenario. Earlier this year, it withdrew permission for a charter to use space at Lincoln Elementary School, which closed in 2015, in part because the building needs significant work. (The district also worried about facilitating enrollment pressure on nearby schools.)

The school board authorized a “charter compact” in January to address contentious issues between the district and the charter sector, including facility needs. The board also created a committee to make policies under the compact, but that committee has met only once since then.

The district antagonized the local charter sector this spring by revoking three low-performing charter schools’ right to operate. The decision to spend heavily at the Brookmeade building could represent something of an olive branch.

But board chair Teresa Jones said the decision to pay for Libertas’ roof repairs could set a dangerous precedent for the district to pour money into schools it does not operate at a time when it is working to cut its facilities costs.

“With high deferred maintenance, it could really get out of control,” she said.