Nine months ago, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board rejected two charter schools only to have the state in December overturn those rejections. Ten new school applications have just been submitted, and several board members are worried the same thing might happen again.
“We just wasted a lot of time, a lot of taxpayer dollars, and that’s my concern,” board member David Tatman said.
The board agreed unanimously Thursday to seek proposals from an outside, “third-party” evaluator to judge the 10 charter school applications. All 10 are all seeking Type 1 charters, limited to students who live in the boundaries of a specific district, in this case, East Baton Rouge Parish. A charter school is a public school run by a private organization via a charter, or contract.
Outside evaluations of Type 1 applications are required by state law. The school system has until June 2 to hire an evaluator, put that person to work and then decide whether to approve or deny the applications. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education then has until October to rule on any appeals.
The latest batch of applications comes as the school system works to close a looming multimillion-dollar deficit, which school officials blame in large part on the money it is required to direct to charter schools. School leaders have become increasingly critical of charter schools in recent months.
Tatman, who was board president in 2015, noted that last year’s evaluator was Kimberly Williams, a former administrator with the Louisiana Department of Education who “knows this stuff inside and out.”
In June, Williams reviewed four charter school applicants and recommended rejecting all of them, including Apex Collegiate Academy and Laurel Oaks Charter School. The parish School Board quickly agreed.
“It would be hard to say that our decision was based on politics,” Tatman said, noting Williams’ involvement.
In December, BESE overturned the rejections for Apex and Laurel Oaks. Those schools were instead awarded much broader contracts known as a Type 2 charters, which allow them to enroll students from the entire state. The school system estimates it will have to divert about $3 million next year to those two charter schools.
Newly elected BESE member Jada Lewis, who represents East Baton Rouge Parish along with fellow BESE newcomer Kathy Edmonston, urged the board Thursday to be more detailed in its evaluations. She said she and Edmonston will approve only charters that “really add value, really are being innovative and are meeting the needs of parents in the Baton Rouge community.”
But Lewis warned that the school system has to make sure that if it rejects a charter school application, it has “a valid reason and is not just saying, ‘We don’t want any Type 1 charters in Baton Rouge.’ ”
Tatman said the outside evaluations paid for by the school system should be sufficient to demonstrate that.
“You guys should be looking at what the third-party evaluator says as well,” he said.
“And we do. Well, I do,” Lewis said. “I can’t speak for the other members.”
Board President Barbara Freiberg echoed some of Tatman’s frustration. “We all feel pretty much as Mr. Tatman does about sending something that’s been evaluated by a third party to BESE and having it ignored,” Freiberg said.
Superintendent Warren Drake noted the state hires its own outside evaluator to judge applicants. “They don’t look at our evaluator at all,” he said.
Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, suggested it’s BESE, not the local school boards, that is playing politics with charter school applications.
“I think that BESE too should be transparent and take the politics out of their selection process,” Washington said.
Shafeeq Shamsid-Deen Jr., lead founder of Laurel Oaks, said he was much more impressed with the state’s evaluation process, which was conducted by Boston-based SchoolWorks, than the much quicker and less detailed process Williams undertook.
“(SchoolWorks) is literally in the business of doing this all over the country,” Shamsid-Deen said.
He said SchoolWorks representatives never asked him about Williams’ evaluation of Laurel Oaks.
Even so, Shamsid-Deen thought at first Laurel Oaks would land a Type 1 charter. He recalled Williams informing him that her draft recommendation was that the School Board award him a Type 1 charter. Days later, on the day the board voted, she reversed herself, he said.
At that June 4 meeting, Williams told the board she liked a lot about Laurel Oaks’ application but she did not consider it innovative enough to justify recommending.
Shamsid-Deen said some of his board members also felt Williams had a conflict of interest because she was evaluating charter schools even as she was running one herself, Friendship Capitol High School in Baton Rouge.
Williams left as executive director of the high school last fall and is now interim director at Southern Lab School in Baton Rouge.