No charter schools likely this fall as board runs out of time

JACKSON — It’s unlikely that students will attend charter schools in Mississippi in August 2014.

Members of the new charter school board say there’s not enough time to complete applications, approve them and set up schools by next fall.

In a meeting yesterday, the Charter School Authorizer Board left open the possibility that some well-prepared applicants could be allowed to go ahead. But board members wouldn’t vote on applications until early June under a preliminary schedule that was discussed, less than three months before public schools typically open in Mississippi.

“I think the goal is to afford anybody who is truly ready to open the opportunity to do so, while trying to establish a framework to ensure the highest quality operators possible,” said board Chairman Tommie Cardin, a Clinton attorney.

One obstacle to opening schools next fall could be hiring teachers. Public school teachers might sign contracts with their current districts for next year before a school would be approved, making them unavailable to a start-up.

“There would be very slim pickings,” board member Karen Elam of Oxford said of teachers.

Elam and board member Bonita Coleman-Potter of Ocean Springs said other obstacles to opening in fall 2014 include demonstrating community interest, finding a building, and setting up transportation and food service.

But other board members said they didn’t want to foreclose all applicants from opening.

“I think it’s imperative we have schools open next year,” said Johnny Franklin of Bolton.

Darren Leach, a board member of the Columbus Coalition for Educational Options, said his group could be ready to go by next August. The coalition hopes to open a school serving grades 5 through 8, expanding over time to serve high school as well.

“Based on some of the things we have in place we believe it could be possible for us,” said Leach, who said coalition members have been working on charter school ideas for more than three years.

Cardin said that a lawyer for the state Department of Education has ruled that it would be legal for the board to hire a consultant to help it process applications. He said the board is seeking suggestions on consultants from the Mississippi Charter School Association and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

The board is required by law to seek applications by Dec. 1. Cardin said the board would put a draft version of the application out for public comment on Nov. 1, before voting on it at its Nov. 18 meeting

It’s not clear how the board would pay a consultant. The board has no state money, and won’t start collecting a 3 percent fee from schools until they open. The board is seeking donations, but hasn’t received any yet.

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