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After lengthy debates, two charter school groups, BASIS.ed and Helix Community Schools, won permission Thursday to open new schools in Baton Rouge.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board vote for BASIS was 5-3 and for Helix was 6-2. The board unanimously rejected Bellissimo Beginnings, Kennedy Elementary School and Xcel Technical Academy. Board member David Tatman was absent Thursday, while board member Jill Dayson left after the BASIS and Helix votes, but returned for the Kennedy vote.

School officials estimate the schools approved Thursday night could cost the school system $8.1 million in 2020-21, growing to $41.7 million in 2026-27 if the schools meet their enrollment growth targets.

These applicants are the first of 10 being considered, all seeking to start charter schools in Baton Rouge starting in fall 2020. The other five applicants are scheduled to be considered Monday.

The two approved organizations are very different. BASIS, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, opened its first local school last August. Helix, based in Baton Rouge, opened its first and only school in downtown in 2010.

Both were endorsed by and are receiving financial assistance from the nonprofit New Schools for Baton Rouge.

While every speaker had good things to say about BASIS’s current school in Baton Rouge, several speakers raised concerns about the low socioeconomic diversity of the school, its unwillingness to say where it plans to locate its second school, and its failure to provide transportation for students. There were also concerns that, while promising, the current BASIS school has yet to receive its first school report card.

Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson supported BASIS’ application for a second school but said she hopes BASIS will help address these concerns as it negotiates its contract with the school system.

BASIS submitted one of three applications recommended by Mary “Katie” Blunschi, a former school administrator in Baton Rouge who was hired as the outside evaluator at a cost of $2,500 per application. She and a team of school system administrators interviewed all 10 applicants April 15-16.

The other favored applicants are Baton Rouge-based CSAL and KIPP:New Orleans, a Louisiana affiliate of the San Francisco-based KIPP. CSAL and KIPP:New Orleans are on Monday’s agenda.

Helix came close, but fell just short of getting Blunschi’s blessing.

Blunschi complimented Helix’ application as “very well written and comprehensive in nature” and awarded Helix 96 percent of the available points.

Helix plans to create a K-8 school, called Mentorship Legal Academy, to be a feeder into the downtown high school, along with a K-12 school, Helix Aviation Academy, that would have an elementary and high school on the same campus on or near Baton Rouge Metro Airport. Both schools would start with about 120 sixth-graders each.

Blunschi, however, was troubled by Mentorship’s low scores on the ACT and other standardized tests. She encouraged Helix to raise those scores and try again in the future.

Superintendent Warren Drake's dad was a pilot and he has a daughter who is a pilot. But it wasn’t enough.

“I think the aviation piece is really exciting, but we just got to work on those scores,” Drake said.

Preston Castille, president of Helix’s board of directors, said the school has been successful where it counts, graduating students at higher rates than similar Baton Rouge high schools.

“We’re doing the heavy lifting,” Castille said. “We’re doing what you want us to do.”

Several board members agreed with him.

“I’m so impressed with your growth and your willingness to change things and fix things,” said Ware-Jackson.

Board member Tramelle Howard downplayed the school’s low ACT scores, saying he earned only a 17 on that college placement test, yet went on to earn a law degree from Southern University.

Board member Dawn Collins, however, said she couldn’t support Helix because it was the most expensive of all the applications and approving them would likely force budget cuts in the future.

“I am definitely not going to have what I need for my current schools if I vote for these schools," Collins said.

Here’s the BASIS vote:

For: Mark Bellue, Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, Mike Gaudet and Ware-Jackson.

Against: Collins, Howard and Dadrius Lanus.

Here’s the Helix vote:

For: Bellue, Dyason, Gaudet, Howard, Lanus and Ware-Jackson.

Against: Bernard and Collins.

Rejected applicants can appeal to state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to obtain a charter.

There are currently 29 charter schools in Baton Rouge.

The school system is in the midst of trying to identify $25 million in budget cuts to avoid dipping further into its reserves. School officials blame some of the financial problems on the growth of charter schools and related drops in enrollment at many traditional public schools in Baton Rouge. Leaders of local teacher unions have urged a moratorium on approving new charter schools.

BASIS’s proposal earned the most debate Thursday. Its first Baton Rouge school is located at Woman’s Hospital, and the organization says it already has hundreds of children on its waiting list for next year.


Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.