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The leader of the eSTEM Public Charter Schools system Friday asked to temporarily withdraw from state consideration an application for a multicampus expansion.

John Bacon, chief executive officer of the Little Rock-based system, sent a letter to Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key asking that the charter system's proposal be removed from the state Charter Authorizing Panel's Tuesday agenda so that planners of the four new campuses can better prepare the plans.

The plans now envision a wait of at least two years for three of the four proposed campuses.

"Due to the extensive nature of this plan, we have determined that more time spent developing our proposal will be beneficial," Bacon wrote to Key. "Additional planning time will allow us to present the most comprehensive, detailed proposal to the authorizing panel at a future scheduled meeting."

The publicly funded, independently operated charter school system currently has a kindergarten through eighth-grade campus and a ninth- through 12th-grade campus across West Third Street from each other in downtown Little Rock.

Earlier this year, eSTEM and University of Arkansas at Little Rock leaders announced plans for eSTEM to purchase property at 28th and Fillmore streets from the university. The school system plans called for building a ninth- and 10th-grade high school on that northeast edge of the university campus, and renovating and expanding the existing Larson Hall on the south side of the UALR campus for eSTEM 11th- and 12th-graders.

Additionally, charter school system operators announced plans for opening adjoining elementary and middle schools at 400 Shall St. in an area east of Interstate 30, near the Heifer International property on World Avenue.

Opening dates for all the new campuses, which would enable the 1,462-student eSTEM system to grow to 4,241 students, were being planned for the 2017-18 school year.

Bacon has said that the multicampus expansion is necessary to meet the public demand for the school system, which he said has a waiting list about 6,000 students.

The change in the eSTEM plans comes at a time when the state is in control of the Little Rock School District because that district has six state-labeled academically distressed schools. The state-appointed superintendent of the Little Rock district, Baker Kurrus, in October urged state Board of Education members to be mindful of the effect their approval of expanded charter schools would have on the traditional school district.

In a telephone interview Friday, Bacon said planners now want to concentrate on the Larson Hall renovation and expansion to house at least 11th and 12th grades and possibly 10th through 12th grades beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

The other new schools -- one more on the UALR campus and the Shall Street elementary and middle schools -- would then open in 2018-19.

"We decided we needed a little more time to get all of our details worked out, so we asked to pull the request to be on the agenda next week," Bacon said in an interview Friday after sending the letter to Key.

He said the eSTEM planners anticipate asking to be on the Charter Authorizing Panel's agenda in February.

The state panel, made up of top-level staff in the Department of Education, routinely reviews and votes on applications for new charter schools and on requests to amend the terms of charters for already existing schools.

The panel's decisions are subject to review by the state Board of Education. The state board can either accept the panel's decision on a proposal or elect to hold its own hearing and make its own decision on an application.

"There are so many aspects to this project and trying to open multiple campuses at one time -- we just want to slow down a little bit ... and make sure that we have a solid plan," Bacon said Friday.

"What we are going to focus on first is the UALR partnership and trying to get our upper-level high school kids on campus for 2017. That is still our commitment. And then we'll work toward the east K-through-eight school in the following year, maybe 2018. We may try to phase it in so we don't try to do everything at one time."

ESTEM has made an offer and has an acceptance for the purchase of the Shall Street property. Dec. 31 is the date for closing on the sale.

'We will have to sit on it for a little longer than we thought, but we definitely want to pursue that property because we love that location," Bacon said.

The eSTEM system will continue to operate the two schools on Third and Louisiana streets but will be able to increase the elementary and middle school enrollments if all or most of the high school grades are moved to the UALR campus.

The Charter Authorizing Panel has a three-day meeting next week to consider charter school proposals and amendments.

Metro on 11/14/2015

Print Headline: ESTEM altering expansion timeline

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