State Board upholds Memphis charter closures but raps Shelby County’s process

The Tennessee State Board of Education voted unanimously Friday to uphold Shelby County Schools’ decision to close four Memphis charter schools, while slamming the district for its handling of three of the closures.

During an intense hour-long discussion, state board members said they were torn over whether to uphold the local board’s vote to revoke the most recent three charters. The schools were not meeting their performance requirements, they noted, but the local district’s process for authorizing charters without a contract and closing them on a hastened timeline was troubling.

State board member Wendy Tucker accused the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools of “subterfuge” in citing performance issues for its decision while also seeking to close an $86 million budget gap. She and other board members agreed the closures primarily were aimed at returning the charter school students, and their associated funding, to the local district.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway asks the State Board to reject the Shelby County board’s decision. (Grace Tatter)

Speaking before the State Board, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis backed up those charges with impassioned testimony, asking for Shelby County’s decision to be overturned. “It is about the budget,” he said of the local board’s vote. “It’s about some personal vendettas.”

But ultimately, the State Board sided with Shelby County Schools because members couldn’t find violations of state law to merit overturning the local board’s decision.

“I don’t think the kids win either way,” said board member Mike Edwards.

With its vote, the State Board sided with its executive director, Sara Heyburn, who on Thursday recommended upholding the local school board’s actions. She cited same caveats that the board had about Shelby County’s process in closing the schools. Ultimately, she noted, the State Board does not have a role in monitoring the process of charter revocations.

After the vote, Heyburn noted there are provisions in state law to provide for a smooth process in closing a school and reassigning students to new schools. However, those provisions do not address the process for revoking charters.

Board members said they hope the state legislature will help them avoid future hard decisions by requiring certain practices in charter school authorization, such as requiring a contract between charter schools and districts and codifying a revocation process.

“If there had been a fair process. I wouldn’t have a question. … I would close these schools. The performance is not acceptable,” Tucker said before the vote. “My struggle is not with that, it’s with the process. … I feel like the process ignored the kids. But it looks like by law, we cannot consider the process.”

This year marks the first time the State Board has heard appeals regarding charter school revocations, making it “unprecedented on a number of levels,” Heyburn said.

Contacted after the vote, members of the Shelby County school board agreed on the need for a more clearly defined process for charter revocation.

“We have to have a better process in place,” said Miska Clay Bibbs, who voted against the closures due to questions about the revocation process.

Bibbs promised to bring up the issue before the local board. “… I’m not surprised at all that this is happening,” she said.

Fellow board member Chris Caldwell agreed. “I’ve been consistent with my concerns,” he said.

"I feel like the process ignored the kids."

Wendy Tucker, State Board of Education

The operators of three of the charter schools — Omni Prep Academy Lower, Omni Prep Academy Middle and Southern Avenue Charter Middle — presented their cases for appealing their closures at a hearing last week in Memphis before the State Board.

Contacted Friday about the State Board’s vote, the operators did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The State Board also voted Friday to uphold the Shelby County board’s revocation of a fourth Memphis charter — for the New Consortium of Law and Business. The local board’s decision on that closure followed a more typical timeline for addressing an underperforming charter school. 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.

Memphis reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.