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story.lead_photo.caption Alexandra Boyd (left), director of public charter schools for the Arkansas Department of Education, and Jennifer Davis, staff attorney for the department, are shown in this file photo. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

The Rockbridge Montessori Public Charter School in Little Rock is on track to lose its state-issued charter to operate beyond June 30, causing families of some 120 children to find new schools for 2018-19.

The Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel on Wednesday voted 5-0 in support of revoking the charter of the 3-year-old, independently operated public school at 108 W. Roosevelt Road, after learning of a projected $30,000 year-end budget deficit at the campus.

The vote came during a morning-long meeting in which the panel unanimously approved an accelerated Aug. 13 opening date for the Friendship Aspire Academy Charter School over the objections of Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore. The school will open a year earlier than planned to take advantage of the newly renovated former Garland Elementary School, 3615 W. 25th St.

The panel also on Wednesday acknowledged that Quest Academy of Pine Bluff, a charter school run by Responsive Education Solutions of Texas, is voluntarily giving up its charter after this school year.

The recent developments among charter schools free up at least two and maybe three charters -- bringing the total to seven or eight -- for other charter organizations to acquire when charter school applications for the 2019-20 school year are considered.

The Charter Authorizing Panel's votes for revocation of the Rockbridge Montessori charter and for the new opening date for Friendship Aspire Academy now go to the Arkansas Board of Education in June for final action.

The state Education Board can accept the panel's decisions or choose to hold its own hearing on one or both of the schools' plans before making decisions. If the state Education Board decides to conduct its own hearing or hearings -- which can be prompted by a request from a charter school or the surrounding traditional school district -- the hearing or hearings would be held sometime after the Education Board's regular June 14 meeting.

Charter schools, which are taxpayer-supported, are distinguished from traditional public schools in that they can be closed if they are not successful. However, revoking a school's charter has become increasingly rare in Arkansas, where charter schools have been operating for more than 15 years.

Alexandra Boyd, the Education Department's director of charter schools, said the state cannot be held liable for a defunct charter school's outstanding debts. The state, however, can liquidate a school's assets to be used toward payment of the bills, she said.

Rockbridge Superintendent William Felton said school leaders will be working to ensure faculty, staff and vendors are all paid.

"Our main concern is to make sure that the students and their families are taken care of -- that means finishing the year as strong as possible and making sure that they get enrolled in schools that they are looking at," Felton said in an interview after the revocation vote.

Felton, who became the superintendent of the kindergarten-through-seventh-grade school at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, told the Charter Authorizing Panel that the school had earlier reported to the state a larger number of expected students than actually existed, resulting in too much state aid going to the school.

State aid to the school is based on student enrollment.

When the 18-student overage was discovered and the state funding adjusted downward, the district had very little time left in this school year to sufficiently trim expenses to meet revenue.

Education Department records last month showed that the school received $91,744 per month in state aid in July through November 2017. That was adjusted to $67,482 per month from December through March. State aid to the school dropped to $27,539 in April, and then decreased to $18,779 for May and June.

News of the projected year-end deficit came to light in April, shortly after the state panel and Education Board had released Rockbridge from a yearlong probation for matters that centered largely on the school's previous lack of adequate staff for students who needed special-education services.

"This is not the result of teachers or the families or the students at the school," Felton told the panel Wednesday about the negative balance.

"Those teachers worked very hard," he said, adding later that he believed the school -- if allowed to continue to operate -- could become financially viable but that it would require a combination of donations and budget cuts, including staff cuts, renegotiated or new contracts with vendors, and stability or growth in student enrollment.

He told the panel that the school's pupils, many of whom live in the school's east Little Rock neighborhood and are being raised by extended family members, have shown "significant improvement" in achievement this year.

Overall, 61 percent of the pupils have met or exceeded achievement goals in reading, as have 71 percent of students in math, he said, based on commercially produced interim exams that are commonly used by schools to gauge student progress.

"I would like to keep it going," Felton said about the school.

Noemi Garcia-Santiago, a parent of a child at the school and a school employee, told the panel that she and her son view the school as a family, and she pleaded with the panel to give the school more time to prove its worthiness.

Mike Hernandez, state superintendent for the Office of Coordinated Support and Services and a panel member, questioned Education Department staff on whether a decision to allow the school to continue to operate would result in having to close down the school in the middle of the 2018-2019 school year.

Cindy Smith, the Education Department's coordinator of fiscal services and support, said that minus an extraordinary donation to wipe out the school's debt, the school's debt is likely to continue to exceed available revenue.

Those voting for the revocation were Naccaman Williams, Kathi Turner, Jeremy Owoh, Toyce Newton and Mike Wilson. Panel Chairman Ivy Pfeffer was absent. Hernandez was acting as chairman and didn't vote.

Friendship Aspire

Friendship Aspire Academy is sponsored by the Friendship Aspire Education Foundation, which operates charter schools in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Louisiana. The organization received approval last year to open a charter school in Pine Bluff in 2018 and a school in Little Rock in 2019.

When the New Orleans-based Einstein Charter School organization voted last month to terminate its plans for a charter school in the Little Rock district's former Garland school, Friendship Aspire sought to move up its opening date to make use of the building that is being renovated by KLS Leasing LLC. KLS Leasing is affiliated with the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, a promoter of charter schools.

Joe Harris, national executive director and founding board member of the Friendship Foundation, assured the panel that the Friendship Aspire school can be ready for as many as 160 kindergartners and first-graders in mid-August. Ultimately, the school would serve up to 480 in kindergarten through fifth grade.

School planners are capitalizing on earlier preparations made by Einstein in regard to recruiting staff and pupils, Harris said, and that it would be "a travesty" to allow the building to remain vacant a year and to keep children from a quality education program where the intent is for students to make 1½ to 2 years of academic growth in a single year.

Poore, the Little Rock district superintendent, objected to the accelerated opening and the forgoing of the process in place to allow for community review of proposed changes to the original charter application.

Poore defended the district's nearby Stephens Elementary, which features a student-operated banking system and an adjacent community center for the neighborhood. He also noted that he and the Stephens principal have knocked on doors in the Stephens neighborhood just as the Friendship school planners say they will do in an effort to attract families to the new school.

Panel members voted to allow the early opening after questioning Harris and others associated with the school about worst-case scenarios regarding the rushed preparations and whether the charter would recruit students by downgrading the traditional district. Panel member Williams noted that he works for the Walton Family Foundation, the landlord for the school, but is not involved in the foundation's charter school work.

A map showing the Friendship Aspire Academy and Rockbridge Montessori

A Section on 05/17/2018

Print Headline: LR charter at risk; 2nd backed for early open

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