Memphis charter school operators first to appeal closures to state board

The operators of three Memphis charter schools are appealing a plan by Shelby County Schools to revoke their charters following a school board vote that occurred only 13 days after district administrators first recommended the schools’ closures.

Operators of Southern Avenue Middle School and two schools at Omni Prep Academy filed their appeals this week to the Tennessee State Board of Education, citing the district’s lack of closure policy and uniform enforcement. Hearings are scheduled for May 18 in Memphis.

The appeals are among the first in the state to challenge a local school board’s decision to revoke a charter since Tennessee’s charter school law was created in 2002, said McKenzie Manning, a spokeswoman for the state board.

Walter Evans, attorney for Southern Avenue Middle, called the Memphis school board’s revocation decision “unfair” and “improper,” charging that the district lacks a closure procedure and did not apply its reasons for revocation uniformly.

Omni Prep Academy’s appeal called the vote “at best, ad hoc and conducted without due process or transparency.”

Its appeal continued: “In the absence of such procedures and guiding policy, SCS seems to have developed their criteria to fit predetermined conclusions.”

The school board voted April 26 to revoke the three charters and close three more Memphis schools, while opting to give three additional charter schools another year to improve their test scores. The action came as the cash-strapped district grapples with an $86 million budget shortfall, as well as under-enrolled schools and low-performing schools.

In its notice to the state board, Shelby County Schools cited the charter operators’ inability to meet minimum performance requirements as stated in their contracts and a “substantial negative fiscal impact” on the district.

In the appeal by Southern Avenue Middle, Evans compared the school’s test proficiency rates to KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle, a charter school on the chopping block that escaped closure last month and that had a strong contingent of supporters present at the meeting. The KIPP school scored about 6 to 10 percentage points lower in reading and math than Southern Avenue Middle in 2014-2015 school year.

All six schools approved for closure were on Tennessee’s 2014 list of priority schools, which identifies the state’s bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools.

Under Tennessee law, charter schools on the priority list are to have their charters automatically revoked, but legislation passed last year delays mandatory charter closures unless the schools show up again on the state’s next priority list in 2017. All three charter schools spared from revocation last month, along with seven other low-performing district-authorized charters that were not proposed for closure in Shelby County, are in danger of appearing on the state’s priority list next year.

The appeals stress the district’s lack of closure policy, one of the many issues that will face Shelby County’s new Charter Compact Advisory Committee, whose members were appointed during the same meeting that the board voted to shutter the schools.

The state board is scheduled to decide on the appeals on May 27 in Nashville.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include that the operators are the first in Tennessee to appeal a local board’s decision to revoke a charter.