Nearly a decade ago in the spring of 2013, advocates for a strong public education system in this state began a war that is likely to be with the state for a long time. At that time, the state opened the doors to what it calls public charter schools. This week, citizens went out to a meeting of the board of trustees of the Jackson Public Schools (JPS) to try and halt the leasing of the Rowan Middle School building to Midtown Public Charter School, the parent organization of Midtown Public Charter School.
Advocates of the charter schools had made a request to JPS to lease the building that once housed Rowan. The apparent intent was to have it as a facility that would attract more students and expand beyond its present enrollment. The effort had been quietly underway for several months, including the gathering of signatures of support and the making of a formal request.
Meanwhile, activist citizens, who are strong supporters of traditional public schools, got wind of the effort. Within a matter of weeks, they organized and decided to make their voices heard at the meeting of the board of trustees scheduled for the first week of April. Among the groups lending support were the Jackson Chapter of One Voice, the Lanier Alumni Association, and the Coalition for Economic Empowerment. Along with like-minded citizens, they monitored the meeting until after the proposed lease agreement was tabled.
The agreement, which reportedly was largely drawn up by Midtown Partners, would have enabled the building to be leased for three years, with an additional three years automatically available, at a rate of $78,000 per year, minus the amount that Midtown would have spent on repairs and renovations. There were serious concerns regarding several terms of the agreement. These concerns were raised primarily by board members Letitia Johnson and Dr. Jeanne Middleton Hairston.
In addition to the discussion around terms of the proposal, several members, including members Frank Figgers, Cynthia Thompson, and Dr. Hairston, made it clear that they were opposed to the idea of leasing to a charter school sponsor. Thompson stated that she could never vote for leasing to and, therefore, assisting a group that had taken a position or made it a mission to weaken the traditional public schools. Figgers made the same point and added that, given the progress that Dr. Greene made in turning the district around, he was confident that the same effort could be successfully used to find ways to overcome the financial problem facing the district in the matter of vacant buildings. Dr. Hairston was additionally concerned about the legacy of Principal L. J. Rowan, for whom Rowan Middle School had been named, if the charter school moved in.
As the discussion rotated around the room, encompassing the issues of contractual terms and charter school occupancy, Superintendent Errick Greene made a strong argument that he needed clarity on whether the board should be voting on the item as one of financial relief for the district or as a policy stance against charter schools. It was clear that he wanted the board to vote on the item strictly as a measure for getting financial relief. He was most noticeably joined in that position by Board President Edward Sivak and board member Dr. Robert Luckett.
The argument/discussion turned largely into a strong defense of the proposed lease agreement by the superintendent. (Although he stated that he was not there to be an advocate for the agreement, Joe Albright, JPS’ chief operations officer, did his share of defending and supporting the agreement.)
There were no agents or supporters who spoke in favor of the charter school request. Nevertheless, in order to bolster its request for the facility, Midtown Partners had circulated a dual purposed petition over several months, stating that the signees desired that the board of trustees, (1) vote to approve the immediate use of the vacant schools in Midtown, and (2) approve the request from Midtown Partners for use of one of the schools. These petitions helped convince some board members that the proposal was popular with area residents.
Two speakers, Asinia Lukata Chikuyu and this author, spoke during the public comment session. They both opposed the yielding of JPS facilities for the use by charter schools. Their opposition centered on several points. Those points included the fact that (1) currently JPS surrenders some $2.2 million each year from its budget in order to enable the Midtown school to operate; (2) surrendering the Rowan and/or Brown buildings would facilitate the expansion of the charter school, causing JPS to have to pay even more money to them in the future; (3) the Midtown school has failed to add to the quality of education in the community, consistently ranking in the bottom tier of schools in the state, 782th out of 816 schools; (4) Black children from low-income families are being exploited in order to weaken the public school system; (5) the fact that, along with the other charter schools, Midtown is being promoted by conservative groups that have historically been opposed to public schools; and (6) the fact that other programs, such as GED and job development should be sought to occupy the buildings rather than yielding vacant buildings to the likes of the charter schools, which only take money away from the district.
These ideas and much more were reflected as board members expressed their deepest feelings about the matter of leasing the Rowan school building to Midtown Partners for use by Midtown Public Charter School. As more and more of them expressed their reservations about approving the lease agreement, President Sivak and Superintendent Greene began pondering ways to resolve the matter for the night. At that point, it appeared that three members were opposed to the agreement; two were in favor of it, with Johnson leaning toward opposing it and Barbara Hilliard leaning toward favoring it. Greene wondered aloud if he could withdraw the item from consideration. Sivak wondered if the item could be tabled. After consulting with the board attorney, Dorian Turner, the item was tabled by a unanimous vote.
Therefore, after a considerable amount of time, the battle that had been anticipated and engaged in by very interested members of the community came to a close. Those who had gone out to engage in and observe the battle left with the certainty that it had been perhaps only the first of many such battles, as long as there were charter schools around to siphon money from JPS. Each time another charter school tries to expand or attempts to lease or purchase a vacant JPS building, there will be a battle.
Stay tuned. It may already be later than you think.