The Arkansas Board of Education voted 6-0 Thursday to hold a hearing on whether to allow the Friendship Aspire Academy charter school to open its Little Rock campus in August — a year earlier and in a different part of the city — than originally planned.
The Education Board vote — made at the urging of Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore and current and past lawmakers — puts some brakes on the approval given May 16 by the state’s Charter Authorizing Panel for the accelerated opening of the charter school.
A date for the board hearing was not immediately set by the Education Board, but officials said they anticipate it will take place on or before the board’s next regular meeting July 12.
At its lengthy meeting Thursday, the board also accepted the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decision to revoke the state charter held by the financially struggling Rock-bridge Montessori School, 108 W. Roosevelt Road, resulting in the closure of the 3-year-old school that served about 120 students this past school year.
The board also learned that the Quest Academy of Pine Bluff, an open-enrollment charter school, will not seek to renew its state-issued charter, causing that school to cease operations at the end of this month.
The Charter Authorizing Panel and Education Board in 2017 had approved proposals made by a Washington, D.C.-based charter school organization to open a Friendship Aspire Academy charter school in Pine Bluff in 2018-19 and a second charter school in southwest Little Rock in 2019-20.
Poore formally asked the Education Board to review the amended opening date just hours before the board was to consider the authorizing panel’s earlier decision. The state Education Board has the authority to accept the panel’s decisions on charter schools or conduct its own hearing as the basis for a final decision.
“When you talk about a waiver to allow a school to jump in and actually start a full year earlier, that probably deserves a lot deeper thinking than just the issue in front of you today,” said Poore, who had questioned whether the charter school could adequately prepare for opening in terms of financing, enrollment and programming.
He also said his district had made irreversible staffing and budgeting decisions earlier this spring, unaware of the potential impact of the charter school that would compete with the school district for students and state funding.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott, former state Sen. Sam Ledbetter, and Vic Snyder, a former state senator and U.S. congressman, each briefly addressed the board in support of the Little Rock district’s request for a review. All are Democrats.
Joe Harris, the chief executive officer for the Washington, D.C.-based Friendship Aspire Academy charter organization, told the the Education Board that he was “confident” of the school’s preparations for opening this year.
Those preparations, he said, included the employment of a principal, as well as a special-education teacher and six other faculty members, along with an aggressive student recruitment plan that is underway.
In an interview after the vote to set a hearing, Harris pointed to the D and F grades given by the state to some of the Little Rock district’s schools that are near the proposed Friendship Aspire Academy site.
“Waiting another year to open the school is saying there is no sense of urgency about educating children,” Harris said.
Earlier this spring, Harris had asked the Charter Authorizing Panel for an amendment to the original charter for the Little Rock campus to allow it to open this year in the Little Rock School District’s former Garland School at 3615 W. 25th St.
That Garland building became available to the Friendship Aspire Academy when the New Orleans-based Einstein Charter School organization withdrew its already state-approved plan to open a charter school at the site.
The Little Rock district had sold the Garland building to KLS Leasing LLC Inc., in 2017. KLS Leasing, an entity of the Walton Family Foundation that is a national advocate for charter schools, had begun extensively renovating the building in anticipation of a lease-to-purchase agreement with the Einstein school.
When the Einstein school group backed out of the Arkansas project, KLS made the site available to Friendship Aspire, which had not settled on a site for its then-planned 2019 opening.
Friendship Aspire leaders have since worked to open the Garland campus to as many as 160 kindergartners and first-graders on Aug 13. The school is approved to eventually serve up to 480 pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Education Board members asked for information on the Little Rock School District’s budget as well as specifics on the qualifications of the Friendship Aspire faculty members, school bus transportation plans and dates for occupying the Garland building.
Board member Jay Barth also asked for an explanation on how the new location well east of University Avenue meets the charter school’s original mission to serve southwest Little Rock.
In regard to the Rock-bridge Montessori School, the board upheld the charter panel’s decision to revoke the charter of that school at 108 W. Roosevelt Road, resulting in the closure of the school for its 120 students.
Charter schools, which are taxpayer-supported, are distinguished from traditional public schools in that they can be closed if they are not successful. However, revoking a school’s charter — as in the case of the Rockbridge Montessori charter — has become increasingly rare in Arkansas, where charter schools have been operating for more than 15 years. Thursday’s revocation is the fifth undertaken by the Education Board in the nearly 20-year history of charter schools in the state.
The panel voted to revoke the charter after learning of a projected $30,000 year-end deficit at the campus, caused by an inaccurate enrollment count that, when corrected late in the school year, resulted in less state aid to the school and not enough time left in the school year to adjust for it.
Education Board member Diane Zook told Will Felton, who headed the school this year, that she was convinced that the school would have succeeded had Felton been at its helm from the start.
Quest Academy of Pine Bluff, which was operated by Responsive Education Solutions of Texas, prompted board members to question what lessons could be learned from the lack of success by that particular campus.
Responsive Education operates three other Arkansas charter schools — Premier High School of Little Rock, Quest Academy of West Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy in Bentonville — and has applied for a charter for a high school in North Little Rock.
Thursday’s decisions on charter schools free up three state charters — bringing the available total to eight — for other charter organizations to acquire when charter school applications for the 2019-20 school year are considered.