When two charter school operators announced plans to leave Tennessee’s turnaround district this spring, many people were surprised that they could break their 10-year agreements.

“How could any charter management company come into a community and up and decide we’re not going to play anymore?” asked Quincey Morris, a lifelong resident of North Memphis, home to two schools that abruptly lost their charter operator.

But in Memphis and across the nation, there’s nothing to stop charter operators from leaving, even when they promise to be there for a long time.

Contracts signed by both Gestalt Community Schools and KIPP contain no penalties for exiting the Achievement School District before agreements run out, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

And by design, that’s not unusual in the charter sector. For better or worse, operators are given that autonomy, according to Dirk Tillotson, a lawyer and founder of a charter incubation organization in California.

“There hasn’t been much attention paid to closures in the law,” Tillotson said of charter laws nationwide. “The laws are more forward-looking than backward-looking when things might blow up.”

That lack of clarity has suddenly started to matter a lot in Memphis, where charter schools are struggling to attract enough students to stay viable. Both KIPP and Gestalt blame their impending pullouts on under-enrollment — a challenge faced by more than half of the 31 Memphis schools operated by the ASD.

But having enough students wasn’t the focus when the ASD began taking over low-performing schools in 2012 and recruiting charter operators to turn them around. The assumption was that charter schools would have too many students and not enough seats, especially if those schools were under new management.

And their contracts reflected that line of thinking. The paperwork detailed how enrollment lotteries should be conducted if space remained after locally zoned students had registered. There was no guidance on what should happen if a school didn’t meet its enrollment goals — only that it would face a review if operating at less than 95 percent of projected enrollment under its budget.

As for the prospect of closure, the agreements don’t specify acceptable reasons for a charter operator to terminate its contract. Should that happen, the contracts say merely that the ASD has the authority to step in and conduct the school’s business and affairs.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yetta Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Gestalt Community Schools, answers questions from parents and teachers during an October assembly at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School.

The gaps in ASD’s charter agreements show how the state-run district was helpless to prevent Gestalt and KIPP from announcing last fall that they would back out of their contracts at the end of this school year. They also highlight the gaps in understanding by all parties of how the decreasing student population in Memphis would affect the ASD’s work. It’s expensive to turn around schools or open a new one in an area losing school-age students as impoverished families vacate; running them requires enough students and funding to provide necessary supports.

Katie Jones, a Memphis charter school principal and a former charter evaluator for the ASD, said none of this should have come as a surprise, though. She said the ASD should have been clear about expectations.

“There should be stipulations that say reasons why you can not pull out of a school… and under enrollment is one of them,” Jones wrote on Facebook.

But including early-exit penalties can have unintended consequences, said William Haft, a vice president with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which has worked with both the ASD and Shelby County Schools to improve charter oversight.

“If they’re walking away, if they’re withdrawing from this commitment, then they’ve probably got a good reason to doing it,” Haft said. “Do you then want to try and force them (to stay open)? … I would want to be careful about setting up that situation.”

Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs, said adding penalties for closures could deter charter operators from taking on an already risky and challenging task to turn around schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent. It also would discourage operators from making a good-faith effort to stay open, as Gestalt did at first by running a deficit, he said.

“It would be insensitive for us to ignore what they’ve been dealing with to the detriment of their finances,” White said, adding the ASD plans to scrutinize enrollment projections more closely. “We have to be sensitive to the realities that shaped operators not being able to sustain the work.”

Still, there’s more at stake with turnaround districts like the ASD, said Morris, a Klondike alumna who is now executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

Most charter schools are new starts, but the bulk of the ASD’s charters are in existing schools that have struggled for years. In wresting control of them from their local district, the ASD and its operators promised to bring innovation and breathe new life into those schools and neighborhoods.

“They made promises that they didn’t keep,” Morris said, “and they disrupted our educational pattern.”