Lafayette board reviewing charter school applications

The Lafayette Parish School System could share roughly $9 million of the per student funding it receives from the state if two proposed charter schools join the system next August.

Charter schools are independent, public schools that receive public funds. The board will decide at its meeting Wednesday whether to approve charter school applications from two separate nonprofit groups.

One application is by Inspire Charter Academy Inc. to open a kindergarten through fifth-grade school in August 2014 that would expand to a K-8 school. The other application is by Lafayette Charter Inc. for three schools: a K-8 school in 2014; a second K-8 school in 2015 and a high school in 2017.

Schools of the type that have applied are called “Type 1” charter schools. They receive a share of the district’s per student funding that comes from the state, just like other schools in the district.

However, the charter schools have an independent school board.

The district receives roughly $8,000 per student in state funding. Based on enrollment projections for the two schools, an estimated $9 million in public funding would flow from the school district to the two schools in 2014.

In turn, the charter schools pay the School Board a 2 percent fee based on the total public funding allocation. The charters also pay a separate fee to their management companies.

Inspire will pay National Heritage Academies a management fee of $102,500, according to its proposed budget. The Lafayette Charter Foundation’s budget did not include management fee amounts for its company, Charter Schools USA.

As a comparison, the budget for Charter Schools USA’s newest Type 1 school, The Magnolia School of Excellence in Shreveport, shows a budgeted management fee of $344,116 and an authorizer fee to the Caddo Parish School Board of $128,924. The Magnolia School budget is based on an enrollment of 660 students.

Public dollars going to for-profit companies troubles parent Ann Burruss.

“I have a plea that people, voters, in Lafayette will get informed about how these charter school companies actually operate,” Burruss said in an e-mail response to questions.

She said her research has led her to news stories online that “begin to tell a story of high management costs, parent dissatisfaction, excessive rents and other unintended consequences that result when you change the model of public education from ‘run by school districts’ to ‘run by for-profit management companies.’”

Both charter companies’ applications have been vetted at the state level and have been recommended for approval. Representatives of both companies have said they’ll appeal to BESE to open Type 2 charter schools in the district if the Lafayette board denies their Type 1 applications.

As a Type 2 charter, the schools would still receive per pupil funding, but BESE would provide oversight. School district chief financial officer Billy Guidry said he’s seeking clarification on the financial impact on the district for a Type 2 charter.

Rodolfo Espinoza, a Lafayette High teacher and president of the Lafayette Parish Association of Educators, said teachers are concerned about the potential negative impact on the district’s already strained budget.

Espinoza said he’s also worried about the impact the proposed charter schools could have on the district’s schools of choice program, which offers students the option to attend schools out of their zone for specialized programs in foreign language immersion or specific interests, such as health careers or performing arts.

“A big point for us locally is that there’s a lot of choice within the system and we have many types of schools with many options as it is,” Espinoza said.

Board President Shelton Cobb said charter schools in Lafayette Parish are likely inevitable since the both applications have been favorably vetted by the state.

“If we’re going to have charters one way or the other, I would think the Type 1 would be better than Type 2,” Cobb said. “I’m pretty sure that some control is better than no control.”

Cooper said a Type 1 charter is preferable because it gives the district more oversight of the school’s performance. Such charter schools are required to sign a contract with performance indicators guided by the local school district.

Both management companies are investing in the community by building new schools, which Cooper said are badly needed to cope with the district’s growing student population.

Some people have expressed concerns about the district not owning the charter school buildings, wondering what would happen to the facilities properties should the charters be revoked for failing performance. But Cooper said those concerns are unwarranted.

“If you’re willing to come in town and spend $15 million to build schools, it would surprise me a lot that they would allow it to fail,” Cooper said last week.

Board member Tehmi Chassion said he’d prefer the board direct its efforts toward improving the schools it has.

“There are still so many issues with charter schools as far as whether or not they can still provide a better product than what we’re offering,” Chassion said. “As a public school board member, I can’t support charter schools because I’m in the business of supporting public schools. I know we can fix these schools.”

Jay Miller, pastor of The Family Church, serves on the statewide board for Inspire Charter Academy. The proposed Lafayette school would become part of a network of schools Inspire hopes to create over the next three years in partnership with National Heritage Academies.

Miller worked with National Heritage Academies about four years ago to try to open a charter school in St. Landry Parish, though it failed by one vote at BESE.

“I personally don’t feel that charter schools are the answer, but I definitely believe that they play a role in the overall goals of our (district) and what our students need,” Miller said.

Miller and Lafayette Charter Foundation board voice president, Carlos Harvin, pastor of New Beginnings Christian Church, recently helped organize a faith-based push for local churches to adopt and volunteer in local schools.

Miller said he’s an advocate for public schools, and thinks a community should support all options for educating children. His church operates a private school, Lafayette Christian Academy.

“We’re for kids,” Miller said. “If charter is an opportunity for kids to have success and graduate high school and position themselves to be successful in life, then it’s a win.”