The Atlanta school board will hear arguments in January whether to renew the charter of Atlanta Preparatory Academy or follow a staff recommendation to terminate it in June.
Closing the school, which is in an old APS elementary school building on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, would force nearly 500 K-8 students in one of Atlanta’s poorer neighborhoods to find new schools next year.
The dispute over renewal illustrates the dynamics and nuances of charter school relationships with local school boards, especially charters run by for-profit management companies that collect taxpayer funds from the district and extract hundreds of thousands of dollars in management fees.
Allen Mueller, APS’s executive director of innovation, told the board Dec. 3 the case against Atlanta Prep’s renewal is clear-cut and the school’s failings manifold. Atlanta Prep ranks in the bottom 20 percent of schools statewide in academic performance; its enrollment is 45 percent lower than originally projected; and it owes $801,384 to for-profit education management company, Mosaica Education, Inc., he said.
Mosaica has agreed to restructure the loan to eliminate a $568,000 balloon payment due in June, said Mueller. But the financial arrangement is still “untenable” because it’s a potential threat to the autonomy of the board, he said. The state of Georgia recommends charter boards have the independence to overrule their management companies.
“Boards have to be free and unencumbered to make decisions,” Mueller said. “They can’t have that sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.”
Mosaica co-founder and president Gene Eidelman told the board the school hasn’t had time to prove itself because it’s only been open three years and, traditionally, five year charters make their case for renewal after four years.
“This came to us out of the blue us,” Mosaica Online president Joseph Olchefske said later in a later interview. “When we heard about it last summer, we thought it was a bureaucratic snafu that could be easily fixed. But that didn’t happen.”
The school’s finances are a complete “non-issue” now, said Olchefske. The balloon payment has been eliminated, the loan extended to 2018, and the school is selling the Fairburn Road land it bought for $475,000 in 2008 as the original site of the school. He said the school owes $543,000 — not the $801,384 Mueller told the board, and the sale should recoup that.
Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the campaign to pass the charter amendment approved by voters in November, said a Dec. 19 ruling by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy L. Shoob that APS broke state law when it withheld $2.8 million in funding to a group of charter schools, including $291,000 to Atlanta Preparatory Academy, is evidence the district does not fully support charter schools.
APS witheld the $2.8 million to put into the district’s pension fund, even though charter school employees are not employees of the district and do not benefit from its pension fund, an attorney representing the schools argued. APS officials have declined to say whether the ruling will be appealed.
“It is clear the current APS administration is taking a hostile posture toward charter schools,” said Bert Brantley.“The illegal deduction of funds, and now this misleading campaign to shut down a school, are examples of the opposition that charters face from districts across the state.”
Atlanta Prep officials concede there’s plenty of work to be done to turn around the school’s academics – particularly in math — and to upgrade the school building, which is in need of paint and repairs.
The school recruited more teachers who majored in math this year. That and other measures “are now beginning to show a significant impact on student performance,” he said. About $1 million in improvements have been made to the building since it opened, including roof and heating repairs and installing a wireless network.
But Mueller, a former Mosaica executive, said the school’s performance is a continuing concern. “There are four schools in the neighborhood that out-perform Atlanta Prep in math,” he said. The small percentage of money it spends on classroom instruction is troubling as well, he said.
Last school year Atlanta Preparatory received $4,629,276 from APS. According to the school, 49 percent of that was spent on classroom instruction. Mueller said he is not opposed to for-profit charter management companies “if they deliver. But they aren’t delivering. And we want as much money as possible going into the classroom.”
Mueller said he’s doubtful the school can turn it around. “The data is not going to change,” he said. Olchefske sees it another way. “They’re calling the game in the 7th inning, and we want until the 9th inning,” he said.