School board denies application, organizers prepare to answer

Blount County School Board has decided not to get into the charter school business.

The Innovative Education Partnership, who are proposing a science, technology, engineering and math charter school called Hope Academy, aren’t giving up and plan to try again in 15 days.

Thursday evening, school board members voted to deny the application for Hope Academy, a STEM charter school organizers say will be a K-5 school of 180 students they hope to open in late summer of 2012.

Organizers for Hope Academy say they will wait for the specifics from the school board on what the board sees as the inadequacies of the application. They will then address each one and resubmit their application. The board will then have 15 days to act. If the application is denied again, Hope Academy organizers can appeal to the State Board of Education, which will hold a local hearing for both sides to defend their positions and then have 60 days to make a final, binding decision.

“I would recommend we act as expeditiously as possible,” school board attorney Chuck Cagle said of composing and submitting notes to Hope Academy organizers.

Schools director Rob Britt recommended to the board that the Hope application be denied. He cited concerns with regard to financing, how the school will be operated and issues regarding educational programming, policy and governance.

“The application itself is vague and ambiguous when it comes to details,” Britt said. “Therefore based on my staff review, analysis and scoring of this charter school’s application, I would recommend declining this application. I would recommend the board decline granting any waivers in this application,” he said.

The board voted unanimously to deny the application and deny any waivers in the application. Present were chair Rob Webb, Mike Treadway, Dr. Don McNelly, Charles Finley, Chris Cantrell and Brad Long.

Mary Bogert, chair of the proposed school’s board, said the academy’s supporters anticipated the application would be denied. “We really anticipated this would happen this evening,” she said.

Bogert said as soon as they get the notes and reasons for denial, they plan to work quickly to answer concerns and resubmit to the board.

“Our team is prepared,” Bogert said. “We will probably resubmit it earlier than the 15 days.”

Bogert said most charter schools initially face challenges when approaching school boards to get applications approved. “It is very typical,” she said. “Charter schools typically do not get approved on the first go-around. We’re grateful the board met with us. All this is a step in the process. Now we can concentrate on the next step.”

Bogert said if the board denies them on the second attempt, their application will be appealed to the State Board of Education.

“If that happens, the state board will come here and hold a hearing,” Bogert said. “The state board will hear from both sides and then make its decision.”

School board member Dr. Don McNelly had spent a considerable amount of time with the charter application and read a three-page letter into the record outlining his objections and concerns regarding the application. Afterward, Burkhalter obtained a copy of McNelly’s comments and offered his answers regarding McNelly and the board’s concerns.

McNelly said the application is a very lengthy document and has language that seems to be a wholesale chunking of principles and concepts as found in published materials. “Blount County Schools have embraced these concepts, and they may be found throughout the schools,” he said. “There appears to be in the application very little new ideas. Therefore, presenting the ideas to be unique compared to Blount County Schools is premature and not accurate.”

McNelly said STEM school principles of focusing on science, technology, engineering and math are not new, innovative ideas. “Elements of STEM can be found in the offerings within several Blount County schools,” he said.

Burkhalter, an attorney, Blount County commissioner and a member of the board for IEP, said many of McNelly’s points were addressed in the application. “When we resubmit our application to the school board around Aug. 24 or 25, we will more clearly address and answer his concerns he raised,” he said.

Burkhalter said a charter school does not have to be unique from the school system. “The charter school approach to education is what is unique and sets it apart from the rest of the school system,” he said. “You will find concepts we will utilize and implement in certain segments of Blount County, but what we’re doing is taking an entire philosophy and implementing all these concepts into one process.”

McNelly said the charter application’s plan to serve handicapped is to send these individuals to the Blount County School System. “This is not a plan to serve but one that may be a denial of rights as contained in federal statutes,” he said. “The suggestion for contracting with Blount County Schools places an additional burden to adequately serve all of their students.”

Matt Throckmorton is executive director for the Tennessee Charter School Association and has been assisting Hope Academy planners with their application. Throckmorton said the final responsibility for special needs children is the school districts, based on federal law. “The experience we have in Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga has been the district leads the assessment and assigns services, and the charter school works with the district in providing service,” he said. “The expectation of the Hope Academy is that they will work with the district in providing for specials needs students like any other school. The final expectation is that Hope Academy will provide special education services for all students.”

McNelly said it is not clear from the application that the funds would follow the students. “What law in Tennessee states that funds from other school systems would automatically flow from across school districts or county boundaries?” he said.

Burkhalter said the law is in place and is part of the new charter school laws that passed in June. “The funding for those per pupil costs will follow the students. This is part of the new law just passed in June of this year. People are still trying to understand the mechanism by which the state board of education can ensure money properly follows students.”

McNelly said the application suggests that the financial burden on Blount County Schools would only be for the first year of operation. “Then per pupil costs for the first year would have to come from a very tight budget,” he said. “It really amounts to a tax increase upon the citizens of Blount County that may come about by a decision of the state school board and/or the Tennessee Commissioner of Education. The final decision rests with the State Board of Education. Since the majority of the system’s expenditures are in the instructional section, how many teachers would need to be cut in order to pay from the charter school’s request?” he said.

Regarding the possible $1 million impact on the school system, Burkhalter said that is assuming all 180 students come from inside the Blount County School system.

Burkhalter said that is why the charter school is asking for a waiver to put students from Alcoa and Maryville in the same category as Blount County School System students.

McNelly questioned the academy’s plans on not providing transportation. “About 60 percent of the Blount County School system’s students ride the buses to and from their respective schools. Also, about 50 percent plus of these students qualify for free and reduced meals,” he said. “This application does not adequately address the needs of these subsets of populations, therefore opening the door for discrimination against the poor.”

Burkhalter said that in regards to transportation, a charter school isn’t required to provide transportation. “Even in metro areas where busing is a necessity, charter schools do not always offer transportation, and families who want to send children to charter schools form car pools or other means to make their sure kids get to school,” he said.

Burkhalter said that the school districts that work with charter schools are starting to convert whole school systems to charter school systems. “With charter schools being able to bring in students from outside the Local Education Authority (LEA), money follows the students, and the county gets credit for the student’s performance, increased sales tax dollars and a larger proportion of BEP dollars,” he said.

McNelly said it appeared the Hope Academy application should be categorized as a private school and not a public school. “I am not in favor of Blount County Schools’ funds going to the proposed charter school and seeing 180 students being served while 11,000-plus have to bear the burdens,” he said.

Burkhalter thanked the board for considering the Hope Academy application. “It is clear we all want what is in the best interests of Blount County students,” he said.

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