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The future of Rockbridge Montessori Public Charter School in Little Rock, in jeopardy of not having sufficient funds to complete this school year, will be the subject of a hearing May 16 before the state's Charter Authorizing Panel.

The panel held a special meeting Thursday to set the hearing on Rockbridge. It also spent time determining how to address a proposed charter amendment for a different school, Friendship Aspire Charter School, which is seeking to open in Little Rock this August rather than in August 2019 as originally planned.

The seven-member panel -- made up of a mix of Arkansas Department of Education staff members and others outside the agency -- will follow the May 16 hearing on Rockbridge with a vote to recommend revoking, modifying or taking no action against the school's state-issued charter.

The charter panel action will go to the state Board of Education in June, at which time the Education Board has the authority to accept the panel decision or vote to conduct its own hearing before making a final decision on the school's future. Any hearing by the state Education Board would occur after the board's regular monthly meeting, so either in later June or at the board's July session.

Rockbridge, which is at 108 W. Roosevelt Road and has 122 students in kindergarten through seventh grades, must continue to hold a charter, or contract, with the state to be eligible to operate and receive the same kind of state aid that is distributed to traditional public schools.

Few details about the school's financial situation were presented at the panel's meeting Thursday.

"In our collaboration with the fiscal support services unit, we have become aware of some information about Rockbridge," Alexandra Boyd, the state's charter school coordinator, told the panel. "We are concerned that the school may not be able to complete the year with a positive fund balance. Our concern is that if they continue operating the way they are that they will end with a negative balance and that is not permissible according to Arkansas state law."

Later she said the school's enrollment count -- the basis for state aid -- was incorrect. The corrected count was lower, generating less state money for the remaining 2017-18 school year.

Boyd said the authorizing panel is responsible for acting on a charter if a school has failed to meet academic or fiscal performance criteria. The panel is also obligated to give the school at least 20 days' notice of a hearing to possibly take action on the charter, which was the reason for the special meeting Thursday.

FUNDRAISING

William Felton, who became superintendent of Rockbridge beginning with the 2017-18 school year, said in an interview after the meeting that the school's board of directors, its teachers and its families want to keep the school open and are in the midst of considering fundraising plans.

"I'm more than happy to help them accomplish that if we can," Felton said, noting that the school almost closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year, "which is when I took it over. We fixed a lot of issues," he said. "You do the best you can and hope for the best."

Earlier this month the school's charter was released from state probation for matters that centered largely on the school's previous lack of adequate staff for students who needed special-education services.

Ideally, school leaders think raising about $70,000 would help the school through the end of this year and the start of the 2018-19 school year, Felton said.

"We've gathered options and we are meeting to discuss them and see what is best for the kids and the families," he said about a session planned for next week.

Felton attributed the financial problems to an error in student counts over time that, if caught sooner, would have been easier to resolve. He said the money is significant for a small school.

Education Department records show the school received $91,744 per month in state aid in July through November last year. That was adjusted to $67,482 per month in December 2017 through March this year. State aid to the school has dropped to $27,539 this month, and that will decrease to $18,779 in May and June.

The school was initially funded this school year based on an average enrollment of 138 but that has dropped by about 18 students.

FRIENDSHIP ASPIRE

The Charter Authorizing Panel dealt at length Thursday with Friendship Aspire Academy Charter School's request that the panel immediately act on a proposed amendment to open in August at a location initially planned for Einstein Charter School.

The board for the New Orleans-based Einstein organization voted earlier this month to terminate plans to open a school in the Little Rock district's former Garland School, 3615 W. 25th St.

Friendship Aspire -- an organization based in Washington, D. C. -- had received state approval in 2017 to open a charter school in Pine Bluff in August 2018 and a second charter school in southwest Little Rock in 2019. The Einstein decision and the availability of the West 25th St. site prompted the Friendship Aspire organization to seek to accelerate its opening in Little Rock to this August.

The school site is owned and is being extensively renovated by KLS Leasing LLC, which is affiliated with the Walton Family Foundation that is a national promoter of charter schools.

Charter Authorizing Panel members Naccaman Williams, Mike Wilson, Kathi Turner and Toyce Newton pushed Thursday for the panel to proceed with an immediate hearing on the proposed amendment that, if approved, would send the plan to the state Education Board for final approval in May. Otherwise, panel action on the requested amendment at its regularly scheduled May 16 meeting would result in state Education Board review in June. That would slow preparations by school planners.

Panel Chairman Ivy Pfeffer, Mike Hernandez and Jeremy Owoh -- all top-level Education Department staff members -- objected to an immediate hearing because the matter wasn't on the publicized agenda for Thursday's special meeting, panel members had not had a chance to prepare for a hearing, nor was advance notice given to the Little Rock School District of a hearing on a school with which the district will compete for students and funding.

On the advice from Education Department attorney Lori Freno, the panel ultimately concluded Thursday that it couldn't hold a hearing on the proposed 2018 opening date until school planners obtained a waiver from Education Commissioner Johnny Key on a state rule that requires a minimum of 35 days between the time an amendment request is made and a charter authorizing panel hearing is held on the request.

The panel tentatively planned to meet at 8 a.m. today for the hearing on the Friendship Aspire amendment request if the waiver was obtained by the school planners.

However, Key denied the waiver request later Thursday and the special meeting today has been canceled.

"The timelines established in the charter school rules are in place for many reasons, not the least of which is for transparency to the public and to other entities that may be impacted," Key said in a prepared statement. "Waivers of those timelines are allowed in the rules to provide efficiency and expediency when necessary. However, on occasion the need for transparency and the need for expediency are in conflict. I believe this is one of those occasions. It would be imprudent to allow Friendship's amendment to move forward on a hyper-accelerated timeline and thereby deny the charter panel and the public sufficient time to fully review and consider the impact of their request."

Joe Harris, chief operating officer and national executive director of Friendship Aspire Education Foundation, said in an interview that plans call for opening 100 kindergarten seats at the Garland site in August, and growing by one grade and 100 students each year through fifth grade.

Friendship Aspire planners have been able to capitalize on work done by the Einstein group, Harris said, by hiring Phong Tran as school leader or superintendent and Lauren Chapman as principal, both of whom were previously employed by the Einstein planners.

Harris said the charter organization initially sought a 2019 opening date for the Friendship Aspire campus because of a lack of a ready facility.

Metro on 04/27/2018

Print Headline: Charter school's funding is focus of May hearing

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