The state Board of Education on Thursday afternoon voted unanimously to review a lower panel’s decision to allow Friendship Aspire Academy to open a school in Little Rock this fall, one year earlier than the operator, Friendship Public Charter Schools, had originally requested. Board members Charisse Dean and Brett Williamson were absent from the meeting.
The state board has yet to set a date on the review hearing, but it will likely happen quickly. Update: I’ve been told the hearing is set for June 22 at 8:30 a.m.
Friendship was originally slated to open a school in Southwest Little Rock in fall 2019 and one in Pine Bluff in fall 2018. (The state board approved those plans last fall.) However, when a different charter operator, Einstein Charter Schools, unexpectedly canceled its 2018 opening of a campus in central Little Rock, Friendship decided to amend its plans and seek a 2018 start date instead. The reason: Einstein had intended to occupy the Garland School building, a former Little Rock School District property now owned by a subsidiary of the Walton Family Foundation. With Einstein out of the picture, the building — which is undergoing renovation — would have sat empty for at least a year.
In May, the Education Department’s charter authorizing panel gave Friendship’s amendment the green light, though not as quickly as the charter operator had originally requested. But all of the panel’s decisions are subject to review by the state board. On Thursday, several board members cited concerns about the highly compressed timeframe in explaining their vote to review the charter authorizing panel’s decision.
LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore was among those who asked the state board to choose to review Friendship today. Poore said that a decision to hastily open a new charter campus could be bad both for the Little Rock district and for parents and students. Several others also spoke in favor of review: former Second District Congressman Vic Snyder, state Sen. Joyce Elliott and former state Board of Education member Sam Ledbetter.
Update, 8:20 p.m.:
Poore noted that the state typically gives approval of a new charter school in the fall. That timing is important, he said. “Then there’s time for the charter to go do its work, to establish itself, to recruit — teacher recruitment, student recruitment — and then actually start to deal with programming. It allows then, also, the school district that’s impacted to have a reality in terms of its budget.” After Einstein said it was not moving forward with its plans in Little Rock, Poore said, the LRSD made staffing decisions in April with the assumption that it wouldn’t start the 2018-19 school year with another charter potentially drawing away students.
“We have in place an idea of how we’re going to staff our buildings, and we’ve established that,” he said “And this is in the middle of a $5 million budget reduction just this year and a $41 million budget reduction over the last three or four years.”
“Parents have options and opportunities. … But typically those choices are made and the windows of opportunities are all done prior to June 1 in terms of who’s going to go where,” Poore said.
Joe Harris, a Friendship executive, told the board it should let the charter authorizing panel’s May 16 decision stand. “At that time, it was determined that we had the capacity, the resources and the experience to open our school a year earlier,” he said. Harris said Friendship had requested to stagger its opening of the Pine Bluff and Little Rock schools by a year only because it had trouble finding a facility. “That issue of the facility was addressed as a result of Einstein pulling out,” he said. “So now we have a school in Little Rock.
Harris brought with him Lauren Chapman, who has been hired to serve as the principal of the new school, should it be allowed to move forward. He said Friendship intends to hire seven teachers and has already identified — two in kindergarten and two for first grade. (Initially, the school will only be grades K-1 but will expand each year.) Two weeks of “aggresive recruitment efforts” have yielded 17 student applications, he said.
“We’re confident that we’ll have the ability and the capacity to open our school in Little Rock,” Harris said. “We’ve already hit the ground running; we would like this body to just follow through with the commitment that the charter panel made to approve us to move forward.”
Vic Snyder told the board it should review Friendship’s amendment. (He spoke as a parent: Snyer, 70, said he has four children at Forest Heights STEM Academy in the LRSD and is very pleased with the school.) Like others, he expressed concern especially about whether Friendship had the capacity to serve special education students. “In fairness to this community and all our children, I encourage you to not circumvent the normal process which allows preparation both for the new school and our local district,” Synder said.
Sen. Elliott, who is herself a former teacher, admitted she was opposed to Friendship’s application in general. But, said she also had “real concerns about the school opening on such a short notice. … As a school teacher I know we started planning, even when … we had a method in place for starting year to year, we started very seriously in February.”
Sam Ledbetter chaired the state Board of Education when it made its momentuous decision to take over the LRSD for poor academic performance at certain campuses. “A review will at least allow you to determine that the charter school is truly in a position to fulfill the commitments to special education and all the other commitments it’s made in its application materials,” he said. “If there’s not sufficient time for the state board to assure itself and the public that this charter school is in a position to successfully move its opening up a year, doesn’t that tell you that … we’re rushing?”
Ledbetter also called attention to the string of decisions in which the state board has approved charters over the pleas of LRSD superintendents to do otherwise. “There’s a perception that the LRSD has become the punching bag for the state. Whether or not it’s your intent, it’s certainly a perception that exists in my community. And, of course, I was on the board [in 2015]. I voted for the state takeover,” he acknowledged.
Board member Susan Chambers made the motion to review. Chambers said she worried that Friendship’s “timeline seems so compressed” and was sympathetic to Poore’s concerns. She said that she felt that “it’s time, given how many charters there are in the [Little Rock] district now, that we’re looking at a more comprehensive plan about where students are, about where the allocation of dollars are going.” (It should be noted that Chambers made similar comments before the board meeting last fall during which she ultimately voted to approve the original application of Friendship and two other charter schools, despite feeling “torn.”)
Diane Zook, who has been a consistent supporter of charters, said she also had concerns about the timeline. She asked Friendship to provide information about their plans regarding special education, physical and speech therapy, dyslexia services, transportation and more. Board chair Jay Barth, whose votes on charter issues have been more mixed, asked for “more specificity about building timelines” in terms of the renovation at Garland. He also asked why Friendship was shifting away from Southwest Little Rock, something its original application had emphasized as an important part of its intended mission in the city.
Ouida Newton asked for specifics on the qualifications of the teachers Friendship intends to hire. “Are they going to need waivers?” she asked. Charters or districts can seek waivers of state education standards to hire teachers who are not certified. Alexandra Boyd, the ADE staff person for charter schools, confirmed to Newton that Friendship’s application did include a waiver for teacher licensure. Newton said she still wanted specifics about the backgrounds of the teachers at Friendship.