Lafayette board may open its own charter schools

Sometime between now and late October, the Lafayette Parish School Board will discuss two pending charter school applications and the possibility of converting some of its schools into charters.

The board voted 5-4 late Wednesday to delay a decision on applications from two nonprofit groups that want to open a total of five Type 1 charter schools in the district in a three-year period. The first two schools — both for K-8 grades — would open by August 2014, which the charter school representatives said is still possible.

Another possibility is the School Board opening its own charters.

Charter schools are independent public schools that receive state per pupil funding. The type of charter a school holds determines its funding stream and oversight — either by a local school district board (a Type 1) or by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (a Type 2).

Some board members reasoned that the district isn’t in academic trouble — its current state accountability rating is a B — and it could find other solutions to fulfill what the charter school applicants offered — new schools for the booming Youngsville area in south Lafayette and in north Lafayette where the district’s lowest performing schools are located.

Youngsville schools have accountability ratings of A or B.

“I can’t see building a charter school across the street from an A school,” said board member Mark Allen Babineaux, who proposed the deferment and a workshop to discuss the charter school applications.

He also proposed the board explore the conversion of its two lowest performing schools — Alice Boucher and J.W. Faulk elementaries into Type 3 charter schools, which would be overseen by the School Board but managed by a nonprofit group, charter management company or a university.

Board member Hunter Beasley said having the district open its own charter schools won’t prevent outside groups from opening schools. If the board denies the Type 1 applications, Beasley said he thinks they would meet BESE approval as a Type 2.

“They’re still poised to come in . . . I could be wrong. If I had to choose between the two, I’d prefer a Type 1. Those applications are going to be there regardless of what we do.”

Beasley proposed using money in the district’s general fund to build its own schools. The district has more than $60 million in its “rainy day” or reserve fund.

However, board members have opposed dipping into the account to balance its budget and stripped capital improvement funds to divert the money into the general fund this year and prevent cuts in instructional areas.

Board member Rae Trahan, who represents the Youngsville area, said she would prefer the district use taxpayer money to build new schools in her district rather than share it with charter schools.

Discussion of the charter school applications didn’t begin until 10:30 p.m. and board members voted at 11:45 p.m. At least four people spoke in opposition to the schools with Youngsville Mayor Wilson Viator speaking in support of charters.

Some board members worried about the charter schools’ impact on the district’s budget since the charter schools would be eligible for a share of the per student the district gets from the state — just like any other school in the district.

Lafayette Parish schools Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry said the charter schools could receive between $8,000 and $9,100 in per pupil state funding, based on projections.

Board member Tommy Angelle said if the charters could help students succeed, then, “frankly, I don’t care where the money goes. If they do what they’re supposed to do.”

The 90-day window for the School Board to make a decision on the charters closes on Oct. 26, Superintendent Pat Cooper said Wednesday.

If the board denies the applications or fails to act by the deadline, the charter groups said they plan to appeal to BESE to open the schools as Type 2 charters.

Wednesday’s delay shortens the timeline for both charter school management operators to open schools in August 2014. But representatives for both companies say they are committed to building new schools in the parish.

“Although we are disappointed by the delay, we appreciate the interest and sincere discussion that is taking place over providing education choice for the community,” Megan DeKraker, director of new charter school development for National Heritage Academies of Michigan, said in an e-mail Thursday.

“We will continue to make ourselves available to the Lafayette Parish School Board and other community leaders to answer questions they may have,” she said.

“Even with the delay, should the charter be approved quickly, we could still open a school in August 2014.”

Even if BESE approval is needed, the proposed school could still be on track for an August 2014 opening, though “it makes for a more difficult timeline,” DeKraker said.

Charter Schools USA representative Jay Augustine told the board Wednesday that his group is “already behind the eight ball” and losing time to acquire land to build a school.

On Thursday, Augustine, a Baton Rouge attorney, said the deferment limits “our ability to begin the facility acquisition and construction process and thus reduces the time we would have to complete the building of the new school. At this point, however, we still intend to open in 2014.”