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This photo provided by Arizona-based BASIS Schools in 2018 shows its first Louisiana charter school, across from Woman's Hospital, as it was under construction.

Just nine months after opening its first school, BASIS.ed has won approval to open a second campus in Louisiana’s Capital City.

The new school will allow the Arizona-based charter school organization to meet some of its already high demand and shrink its huge waiting list, which is nearing 600 kids. The new school is set to open in August 2020 at a location still to be determined.

But in narrowly approving the expansion plans of this nationally celebrated school network Thursday night, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board made clear that it’s not done scrutinizing BASIS, particularly its lack of socioeconomic diversity.

Just 33 percent of Basis Baton Rouge’s current students qualify for free-and-reduced price lunches, an indicator of poverty. It’s one of the lowest rates for a public school in the Capitol Region. Most of the 27 schools in the BASIS network, some of them perennials on national best-of school lists, don’t even offer federally subsidized meals.

Charter schools are public schools run privately via charters, or contracts.

The final vote Thursday night on BASIS’ expansion was 5-3, with board member David Tatman absent.

Of 10 charter school applications submitted this year, BASIS’s was the highest rated by an outside evaluator. School system officials who have visited the school so far have been complimentary of the BASIS’ operations. A parade of parents on Thursday sang the praises of the young school.

In opening its first Baton Rouge school, BASIS formed a corporate partnership with Woman’s Hospital, which is next door to where the school is located. BASIS says it is open to a corporate partnership for its newly approved second school.

The partnership with Woman’s allows the hospital to claim as many as half the seats at the first BASIS school for the children of its employees, but only 22 so far have decided to do that. Of that school’s 392 students, BASIS reports that almost half came from private and parochial schools.

Board president Mike Gaudet voted yes Thursday night to the second BASIS school, but was not without criticism.

At one point, Gaudet made a motion that would have required the new BASIS school to compy with a longstanding state law by its third year of operation — specifically a provision that says charter schools cannot fall below 85 percent of the enrollment of economically disadvantaged and special education students of the school districts that authorize them.

Gaudet later withdrew his motion, but said he’s not forgetting: "I am admonishing everyone that we will be enforcing (state law) with renewals and other things."

The next step is negotiating a contract. The process will look different this year.

The School Board plans to soon unveil two documents, a standard contract for charter schools and a new “accountability framework” to assess how those schools are performing. The documents are set to be approved in June. Both are modeled after similar documents the state and the Orleans Parish School Board use in authorizing and overseeing charter schools.

Gaudet said these new documents will be part of contract negotiations with BASIS. They will also be part of the negotiations with Helix Community Schools, the other successful applicant Thursday, as well any other applicants approved when the board meets Monday night to consider the five remaining applicants.

Seventy-six percent of children in the parish school system and 69 percent of public schoolchildren in Louisiana are considered economically disadvantaged. Multiply those rates by 85 percent and the resulting student poverty threshold for charter schools is 65 percent in East Baton Rouge Parish and 58 percent for those chartered by the state. The vast majority of charter schools across Louisiana easily meet those thresholds or come close. However, a few charter schools, including BASIS, fall well below.

In its application for a second charter school, BASIS set a very low “target” of 10 percent for economically disadvantaged students, a third the rate of its first Baton Rouge school.

“That 10 percent we have in the application is just a floor, it’s not a target,” BASIS Baton Rouge Executive Director DeAnna Rowe explained Thursday.

“You would not consider state law to be your minimum?” asked Gaudet sharply.

The state law, while mandatory, is silent on what happens if charter schools don’t comply.

"The law does not set a consequence of closure if it is not met,” Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, told the School Board. “The law does empower you to do something about it.”

Jill Dyason, whose district includes BASIS and who strongly supported its expansion plans, said BASIS is enrolling students who are closer to representing the demographics of the parish as a whole, not the poverty rates of the subset of students enrolled in the public school system.

Many middle and upper class families in East Baton Rouge routinely avoid public schools, which means the demographics of students enrolled in the public school do not reflect those of the parish as a whole.

Dyason also downplayed the state law.

"I don’t think that that law is enforced across the state,” Dyason said. 

Gwynn Shamlin, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, however, insisted that the school system does monitor its 10 district-chartered schools for compliance with the law.

And Roemer, in an interview, said the state as well as Orleans Parish, home to the most charter schools in the state, do as well.

When it was negotiating its contract in 2017, BASIS fought against including consequences for non-compliance with the state law. Board member Dawn Collins, who’s voted consistently against BASIS, said staff members told her that BASIS even threatened to walk away if it was forced to comply with that law.

Asked about Collins' accusation, Rowe responded in an email that BASIS negotiated in “good faith” in 2017 “to protect our investment in the community,” being mindful of where it was locating, the students other BASIS school have attracted and “interest from families currently attending private schools.”


Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.