State education board chief backs decisions to close four Memphis charter schools

The chief administrator for the Tennessee State Board of Education has recommended upholding school board decisions in Memphis to revoke the charters of four schools.

The recommendations Thursday by Executive Director Sara Heyburn precede the State Board’s scheduled vote Friday in Nashville on the four charter appeals.

At a hearing last week in Memphis, the operators of three of the charter schools presented their case for appealing their closures by the school board for Shelby County Schools. The fourth charter, New Consortium School of Law and Business, presented its case earlier this month.

Of the most recent revocations approved on April 26, operators charged that the district does not have established criteria for closure that would provide transparency in the process of revoking the charters of Omni Prep Academy Lower, Omni Prep Academy Middle and Southern Avenue Charter Middle schools.

In her recommendations, Heyburn affirmed the counter argument offered by officials with Shelby County Schools. They contended that, in lieu of an actual charter contract, charter applications to operate schools in the district serve as criteria established by the charter operators. District officials said the three schools had not met the performance requirements under their applications, and Heyburn agreed.

The three closures were approved by the school board in Memphis in a hastened timeline that appeared to contribute to confusion about the closure process. One charter leader, Omni Prep CEO Marc Willis, suggested that Shelby County was closing the schools to address its own budget gap by returning their students, and their associated funding, to the district.

The March 29 vote to revoke the charter of the New Consortium of Law and Business followed a more typical timeline for addressing an underperforming charter school. The vote came after the school board had given the operator a year to amend infractions that included failure to file a financial audit for two school years and failure to pay their teachers in a timely manner.

This year marks the first time since the Memphis school board began authorizing charters in 2003 that operators have appealed the school board’s decision to revoke their charters.