A charter school network’s plans to add middle school grades to two north Baton Rouge elementary schools are on hold after a lawyer for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system raised questions about whether the move is legal.
“I don’t believe the intent of the law was to take an elementary school and convert it to a middle school,” said Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, the state’s second largest.
Rutledge is referring to a 2003 state law that allows the state to take over “failing” public schools, place them in the state-run Recovery School District and convert them to charter schools.
The schools that emerge, however, sometimes look little like the schools they replaced. For instance, Glen Oaks Middle School, taken over in 2008, is home now to three charter schools, only one of which has any middle school grades.
A charter school is a public school run by a private organization via a contract, or charter.
“We have watched this for some time now, and we believe it has gotten far afield of what the law intended,” Rutledge said.
Rutledge raised this objection last week as the school system prepared to give Los Angeles-based Celerity Schools permission to place 11 temporary buildings on the north Baton Rouge campuses of Dalton and Lanier elementary schools. The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday unanimously agreed to defer the request. It’s unclear when or if the board will take it up again.
Celerity has what’s known as a Type 5 charter, which is the type of charter the state gives to private organizations that run failing schools now part of the RSD. Celerity’s charter, issued in August 2013, allows it to operate as many as a dozen such schools around the state. In 2014, the organization took control of three in Baton Rouge and one in Harvey. The four schools remain near the bottom in academic performance statewide, and only one, Lanier, has improved slightly compared with where it stood prior to Celerity’s arrival.
Although its contract with RSD permits Celerity to offer education in kindergarten to eighth grades, regardless of what grades the school offered before it was taken over, Rutledge suggests that contract runs counter to the intent of the 2003 state law.
Crestworth Middle, which is one of Celerity’s three schools in Baton Rouge, was quickly converted to a K-8 school, but the conversion at Dalton and Lanier is proceeding more slowly, one grade at a time.
Craig Knotts, superintendent of Celerity Schools Louisiana, said in order for Lanier and Dalton to educate seventh-graders this fall and eighth-graders the following year, the schools will need four and seven more buildings, respectively, costing between $50,000 and $60,000 apiece. Knotts worries it soon will be too late to purchase and install them in time for August.
“This is a must-do situation so that we can accommodate the seventh-grade students that we’ve planned to educate,” Knotts said.
While it no longer controls schools taken over by RSD, the parish school system still owns the property. That means charter schools operating RSD-controlled schools are obliged to get parish permission if they want to substantially alter, improve or expand their schools. In January, Knotts said Celerity did just that. He said he heard no objection to the group’s plans until he showed up at Thursday’s parish School Board meeting.
He asked the board why the delay?
“There is a serious question as to a Type 5’s authority to expand grade levels beyond the grade levels that existed at the time they were taken,” Rutledge said. “And that is a matter that is being explored legally and otherwise right now.”
It’s a legal objection that could be lodged against at least four other Type 5 charter groups in town, but Rutledge would not say whether the school system will raise this issue with other groups.
Knott remains nonplussed by Rutledge’s objection.
“I have never heard of that,” Knotts said. “The only thing we know of is that if we are to make any alterations or installations, we need to get approval from them.”