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Missouri Baptist U. called on carpet for charter sponsorship

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 21, 2012 - In an unprecedented move, Missouri Baptist University has been called to a special hearing next month that could lead to its losing the authority to sponsor charter schools. Missouri Baptist has been under scrutiny because of the poor performance of charter schools it has sponsored, most notably the Imagine schools and the now-closed Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy.

A spokesman for the university said it could decide to withdraw from the charter school business altogether, but it’s too early to decide whether that is the course it will take. The options, said attorney Douglas Copeland, are to do it better, convince the board the university is doing everything it should be doing, or get out of the business altogether.

“The university needs a little bit of time to assess what this means for the university’s primary mission of educating students,” Copeland said. “The primary mission for the university is not to sponsor charter schools. It’s fair to say that if too much attention and activity are expended in another direction, the university has to consider whether it's appropriate to continue.

“At this point, the university has to assess whether it is in its best interest and in the best interest of the mission of the university to get pressure on one side from the charter holder for being too harsh and from the state board for being too lenient.”

The university-sponsored Imagine charters in St. Louis have been criticized for low academic achievement and questionable management practices. Altogether, the schools have 4,200 students. Late last year, the university said it was revoking the charter of one of the schools, which operates at two locations, and putting the others on probation.

Since that time, the university says it has been regularly reviewing the operations of the remaining Imagine schools. That was part of the process established more than a year ago that led to the decision to close the two locations to be shuttered at the end of the current school year.

But that scrutiny did not stop the state Board of Education from voting in Jefferson City on Tuesday to schedule a special hearing on April 16 to consider whether the university’s authority to sponsor charters should remain or be taken away.

The board is expected to decide on the university’s sponsoring authority the day after the hearing. Depending on what action the board takes, a decision could be effective immediately or become effective on a specified date.

Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said the hearing shows that the state's procedures on governing charter schools is working as it should.

"Any time there is what could be viewed as a problematic situation, it gives the anti-charter school folks a chance to pound their fists and say these things are not good," he said. "But I think this reflects very well on the charter school movement. It actually demonstrates that the process and the theory behind charter schools are working, that the state board is exercising the authority they have."

In a news release, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education noted that “academic performance at four of the six school buildings under MBU sponsorship ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all public schools in Missouri. Deficit spending and high administrative costs have raised concerns about the management and oversight of the schools.”

Copeland said that “the university would be the first one to acknowledge that the programs at the Imagine schools have not been as successful as we expected them to be or wanted them to be. There is only so much a sponsor can do under the charter law. We can’t get into the classrooms. We can suggest things, and we can wield a heavy club like we have, saying we’ve done all we can do and you’re going to close. But we don’t even have the leverage that the state board has with public schools.

This is not the first time Missouri Baptist has been in the spotlight for poor performance of a charter school it sponsored. In 2010, it abruptly revoked the charter of the Ethel Hedgeman Lyle Academy, claiming that its continued operation "presents a clear and immediate threat to the health and safety" of the 800 students enrolled there.

Copeland noted Wednesday that Imagine originally had been the operator of that academy as well. It was removed and the university tried to run the school itself, but that didn’t work either.

Asked what it means that Missouri Baptist has been involved as sponsor of first Lyle, now Imagine, and is now being called to Jefferson City to explain itself, Copeland responded:

“We stand behind the process we have used in the sponsorship of these schools. There needs to be fairness and the opportunity to improve when problems are identified. You can never lose sight of the fact that the parents of 4,000 students have chosen these schools for whatever reasons. They’ve got options. We feel like what we’ve been doing is being responsible to those people and assessing what we can do within the limits of our authority as sponsor.

“Something must be positive there for these people. With all this talk about school choice, these people are choosing these schools, and were trying to do whatever we can to support and improve them. If that is not being accomplished, even though these people are choosing these schools, we must make the decision to close them.”

Under state law, after a public hearing, if the state board finds that a sponsor has not met its responsibilities, it may withhold the sponsor’s funding and suspend for up to one year its authority to sponsor schools it currently sponsors or sponsor any more schools.

If the state board removes the authority to sponsor charters that is currently operating, the board itself becomes the interim sponsor of the school or schools, for up to three years, until the school finds a new sponsor or until the charter contract period lapses.

Legislation under consideration in Jefferson City would increase oversight of charter schools, a move that Thaman welcomes.

"It would support the process that is now taking place for the first time after 10 or 11 years of charter schools in the state of Missouri," he said. "The state board is exercisig the power it has to hold sponsors accountable."

A spokeswoman for DESE said Missouri Baptist has received more than $1.5 million over the past five years in sponsorship fees.  State law allows sponsors to collect up to 1.5 percent of the amount of state and local funding allocated to each charter school that it sponsors.

Copeland said financial considerations will not be involved in the university’s decision whether to continue sponsoring charters, if it is allowed to do so.

“We’re using every penny of the money we’re receiving to employ the people and cover the expenses to fulfill our responsibility as sponsor,” he said. “If we’re not a sponsor, we don’t need that money. This is not a money-making proposition on the part of the university. We have spent a great deal more dealing with these schools than we have been paid.”

Missouri Baptist began sponsoring charters in 2006. Charters currently sponsored by the university are Imagine Academy of Careers (grades K-12), Imagine Academy of Academic Success (grades K-8), Imagine Academy of Environmental Science and Math (grades K-8), and Carondelet Leadership Academy (grades K-6).

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.