Aug. 22, 2013 06:07

Charter schools are coming to Lafayette Parish, regardless of the school board's wishes.


Charter schools are coming to Lafayette Parish, regardless of the school board's wishes.

The school board's only say on the matter - a decision they have until late-October to make - all boils down to whether or not they care to assume an oversight/administrative role in the process by approving the schools as Type 1 charters. If the board opts against that decision, all the two charter companies - National Heritage Academies and Charter USA - have to do is resubmit their applications to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as Type 2 charters, a request that likely will be approved. If that happens, the school board will have no say on the operation of those schools or how the $8,000 in per pupil funding - $4,000 of which will come directly from the school system's coffers - is spent.

A final decision was slated for Wednesday's meeting, but the board, distracted by a long-list of other issues - largely the result of its ongoing feud with Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper - didn't get to the agenda item until about five hours into the more than seven-hour-long meeting. The issue was ultimately deferred, with the board citing a need for more time to research the two charter companies.

The IND sat down to discuss the matter recently with Lafayette attorney Gary McGoffin and attorney Jay Augustine, the director of development and legal affairs for Charter Schools USA and a former East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member. McGoffin represents the Lafayette Charter Foundation, a local nonprofit group that is recommending the school board approve the Type 1 applications of National Heritage and Charter Schools USA.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of approving the charters, argues McGoffin, centers on the construction of new facilities - a growing issue for a school system with an ever-rising student population.

"The student population will continue to grow, and this community has basically chosen not to fund buildings for this school system," says McGoffin. "This is the only way to increase our school capacity. We already had to add 12 classrooms this school year, and based on projections, we'll need these charters to handle that growth."

National Heritage is seeking to open two K-8 schools, while Augustine says Charter USA's plans include three schools - two K-8 schools and a high school. Where those new schools will be located, however, has not been determined, though Lafayette's Northside, downtown and Youngsville are among the areas topping the list of possible sites.

Augustine says the three Charter Schools USA schools will be opened over the course of three years, between 2014 and 2017, each in a brand new, $10 to $15 million "state-of-the-art" facility that won't cost the school system a dime. Augustine points to Charter USA's Type 2 school opened recently in Lake Charles as a prototype for the facilities planned for Lafayette. That school, he adds, was built with a capacity to hold 860 students.

Charter Schools USA's Lake Charles campus

"By 2017, we could have five new schools here, with 4,200 to 5,000 students in new facilities that would otherwise not be there," says McGoffin. "What's important for the school board is to decide whether they'll have a relationship with these charters or have no relationship."

One aspect Augustine makes no bones about, is Charter Schools USA's status as a for-profit company. How Charter Schools USA actually makes a profit after funding the construction of new facilities and paying staff salaries is a bit unclear though. According to Augustine, however, Charter Schools USA's bottom-line is based off of "doing things under budget, in an efficient time-frame and by offering a good product."

Another question, which Augustine did provide a more specific answer to, is what happens if the charters don't hold up their end of the bargain in terms of student performance scores. Augustine says there's a built-in safeguard for that scenario.

"Say after five years of poor performance, our charter is revoked," explains Augustine. "Our model actually insulates everyone and ensures all parties are protected. You see, Red Apple is an affiliate company of Charter Schools USA, and they actually own the school property. They are the real estate arm of Charter Schools USA. Charter Schools USA oversees all the employees and the staff at our schools, while the Lafayette Charter Foundation is the entity that holds the lease on our buildings and our charter. So if Charter Schools USA is out all of a sudden, Red Apple holds the building and can lease it or sell it to another entity."

Enrollment for Charter Schools USA will be open, says Augustine, but he adds the population of "at-risk" students will be reflective of LPSS' total free and reduced lunch population, which hovers above 60 percent parishwide.

"We can target free and reduced lunch students, but we won't discriminate against kids from more affluent backgrounds either," says Augustine.

The school board, says Augustine, has until Oct. 26 to make its final decision on whether Charter Schools USA and National Heritage will open as a Type 1 or Type 2 charters.

"Type 2 is our fall back plan, but we'll see what happens," adds Augustine.

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