Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.
About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.
With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.
The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.
NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.
Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.
“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”
The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.
Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.
“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”
The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.
Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.
With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.
Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.
“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.