The Commercial Appeal

Memphis charter schools may get free rent deal

- By Jane Roberts

The swiftly changing landscape of local K-12 education has some Shelby County Schools board members wondering if it’s time to give free rent to all charters.

Board committee members plan to discuss the idea next month. Some are leery of giving up more than $1 million in leases to district-approved charters, but others are concerned about the district losing ground to the state-mandated Achievemen­t School District, which provides rent-free space for its charters.

Board members also are concerned about new “trigger laws” that could turn dozens of low-performing district schools into charters — with the approving signatures of 60 percent of a school’s parents or teachers. That includes 11 schools the board is considerin­g closing by next summer.

“We probably know the parent or teacher trigger is going to happen in those schools,” said board member David Reaves, co-chairman of the facilities committee. “We need to be proactive in working through that type of situation, and let a charter come in use the buildings for free.”

What’s driving the discussion now is that the school board is directly competing for high-quality charter applicants with the ASD.

For years, the district has charged rent to charter schools that use shut-down or under-used schools. But the board is starting to see those district-approved charters as partners, partly because high-performing charters help raise district test scores.

By state law, ASD is responsibl­e for turning around chronic underperfo­rming schools. To address that mandate, ASD has brought in a bevy of highly touted charters to help manage the load, offering free space to charters that commit to take over entire schools.

If the school board doesn’t follow suit and give charters an equal incentive to be on its team, several members see the district losing ground, considerin­g that more than 65 schools are already ASD-eligible.

“That doesn’t include any that come up in the future,” said board mem- ber Reginald Porter. “The way the district could look in three to four years could be considerab­ly different if the ASD decides to cash in on them all and grant all the charters that come through.”

Free rent means turning down more than a $1 million in leases, just when other sources of revenue are declining or drying up. KIPP Memphis, for instance, leases a wing of Cypress Middle for $320,000. Freedom Prep pays $178,000 for a portion of Lakeview Elementary. Veritas Prep pays $117,000 for Georgia Avenue Elementary, to name a few.

Wary board members also worry that giving charters free space would set a precedent for giving municipal districts the same thing. And they point to new leases starting this summer, including $200,000 from former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton for his charters at Northside High and Southside Middle.

Reaves says the board should make a business propositio­n: Free space in exchange for other paid services, including school lunches, special education services, bus transporta­tion, even psychologi­sts and teacher retirement benefits.

“From my viewpoint, if we offer a slate of services at a lower cost, it’s a win for them and a win for us,” said Reaves. “There are economies of scale that we could provide both charters, the ASD and municipal districts.”

Board member Kevin Woods, also co-chairman of the facilities committee, says it is “premature” to talk about municipal buildings until others on the committee have spoken. But he’s on board when comes to discussing charter leases.

“If a charter school has 200 kids and is paying X amount in rent to the district, what is the true perchild allocation for educating those kids?” he asks. “It is a question the board is going to have to come to terms with. I do think it’s the right conversati­on to have.”

The ASD has addressed the rent issue by saying its charters need a break because they must accept every student zoned to the schools they run.

Other charters do not play by the same rules.

Porter and others say that if the board doesn’t make charters part of the district team, fewer will be willing to sign on with the board and likely will move to the ASD. He wonders what incentive those schools and parents will have to return to the district.

The ASD test scores do not count toward the district’s goals. The money for education follows the student from the board’s coffers to the ASD.

On the other hand, high-performing district charter schools can help the board improve its academic standings.

“The charters serve the same public school kids; the test scores are counted. Why would you want to charge them additional money that forces them to divert resources from their academic program to their facilities?” asks Greg Thompson, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Incubator.

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