Thursday, May 8, 2014

State Board of Education denies move of Quest charter school

Posted By on Thu, May 8, 2014 at 2:24 PM

click to enlarge QUESTER: Chris Baumann, general counsel for charter school operator.
  • QUESTER: Chris Baumann, general counsel for charter school operator.
The state Board of Education today overwhelmingly rejected an application to move the approved Quest charter middle school to a new location on Harding Road, just west of I-430 and Shackleford Road. Testimony included a recitation of the ways representatives of the school have provided misleading or incomplete information to state regulators.

A representative of the school said the organizers would now seek to find a location acceptable to all. But it likely will make it difficult for the school, which says it has signed up 180 prospective students, to open by fall.

Quest, to be operated by Responsive Education Solutions, a controversial Texas charter school management organization, has been pushed from its inception by Gary Newton, who lobbies for charter schools on behalf of organizations financed heavily by Walton Family Foundation money.

Problems, pointed out today by Chris Heller, attorney for the Little Rock School District, and others:

* The school was approved for a location on Rahling Road, on the basis of the argument that there were no middle schools in that part of town. Quest now wants to locate the school many miles east, a five-minute drive from Henderson Middle School, which has open seats.

* Quest was negotiating a new site when the first site was approved, but didn't tell the board about it.

* Quest told the board it wouldn't buy its building until the state and city had approved the new site. Three days later, it bought the building. As yet, neither state or city approval is in hand.

* Quest contended Little Rock has given tentative approval on its traffic plan, based on certain conditions. But it presented no documented proof of that. City Manager Bruce Moore told me during the meeting by e-mail that the school was not yet approved.

* The full traffic studies haven't been made available to the board. Also, they are based on 280 students in the school, when it's approved for up to 490.

* None of the traffic studies available to the board considered whether the light at Harding Road and Financial Center Parkway can accommodate the traffic flow. Taking only a few cars every two minutes, Heller said, meant it would take more than 80 minutes to empty traffic generated by the school. He and others said Quest had only considered the ability of the building at the end of the Harding Road cul de sac to handle traffic when it reached the building parking lot.

* A parent made a lengthy speech in favor of the school. Heller pointed out that her speech was taken verbatim, included a questionable statement, from a blog overseen by Newton.

* Quest advocates claim the price went up on the Rahling site. Heller noted that the school's own documents show the price never changed from what it originally reported; the owner simply wouldn't agree to a lower price.

Quest argued that 180 students had signed up, staff was being hired and approval was needed so that the school could open in the fall.

Heller said the state had a couple of options. One would be for Quest to start over with an application for a good location. He said a major issue before the board was credibility. The other option would be to alter the charter to lower the student cap to 280 from 490. Responsive Ed opposed both ideas.

The Pulaski County School District endorsed Heller's argument against the school. Sam Ledbetter, a member of the board, corrected a Quest parent who said Pulaski Superintendent Jerry Guess hadn't bothered to attend the hearing. Ledbetter said Guess was at the meeting this morning, but had to leave to attend an event in which a student he's long mentored was participating.

Chris Baumann, Quest general counsel, addressed the many questions generally by saying the situation was fluid about the future size of the school.

Ledbetter remarked sharply about his "concern" that the board wasn't made aware of problems with the Rahling location when Quest was before the board Jan. 10. "We're cast as the bad guys because we want to look and you had information and you didn't want to share it."

Ledbetter also questioned Baumann on his representation that the city had signed off on the plan after reviewing traffic as it dumps onto Financial Center Parkway. Baumann said the city has addressed this, but the school has presented no permit from the city or other proof of that. "I have your word that's what the city did and that's no good to me," Ledbetter said. "That's just classic hearsay. You're just representing to me without providing it" that the city studied the issue. Neighbors, including the U.S. Geological Survey across the street, objected to the location as unsuitable for the expected traffic.

Board member Brenda Gullett said the changed location changed the entire application because there were compelling reasons for a school farther west. 

Baumann said he'd be happy for a motion to approve the new location pending city approval. He also argued that lower costs and a more accessible location for the rest of the city — but one still accessible to west Little Rock parents — met the original goals.

Board member Jay Barth said it was frustrating to hear earlier that parents wanted a new school near the Little Rock District's Roberts elementary and a now-changing story. He also brought up traffic issues that developed at the nearby LISA Academy charter school, where growth caused immense traffic problems and unhappy neighbors. Barth said he was concerned that approval of the Quest location could lead to something similar. Baumann said his school had pickup/dropoff plans, including staggered start times, to which they could be held accountable by the city.

Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell again rose to Quest's defense, as he did when the application was before the department's charter review panel. He said traffic had been thoroughly vetted and he said all schools have traffic problems. Gullett said she doubted that new public schools are built in congested commercial areas.

Board member Vicki Saviers noted that Henderson is a school with lagging scores. It makes her "happy" that a new charter school could be an option for those families.

Ledbetter asked if Quest had made progress on providing transportation for students whose parents can't provide it. Baumann said they were considering a bus route that would stop at four or five pickup points. Baumann said he didn't know how many of the 180 students signed up would qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Initially, a motion to approve the changed location failed for lack of a second. The motion was made by Diane Zook, Gary Newton's aunt, an early supporter of the Quest school who believes she has no conflict of interest in voting on her nephew's issues. Board member Vicki Saviers, generally a charter school supporter, said she had visited the site and said it was not a good location for a school much as she liked the idea of an alternative for students who want to go there.

Legal counsel for the department said a vote was needed to either affirm or deny the location change, otherwise the approval of the new location by a department review panel would stand. Questions about available choices for parents were unclear. If Henderson is in academic distress, students in that zone could go to any other school in the district or other school districts, with some exceptions.

Barth said he'd seen "pretty bad behavior" by Responsive Ed and it had put the board in a difficult situation. He said he didn't want to do harm to families, but he didn't want to set a precedent for "charter entities behaving in this way." Gullett agreed that "disingenuous" behavior was troubling, but the board had to consider kids. But she also it wasn't clear where all the children were coming from the school. It is not a given that they come from the Henderson Middle School zone, for example. Chris Heller noted that are 200 new seats available in Little Rock magnet schools since the charter application was filed thanks to settlement of the desegregation lawsuit.

Finally, a motion by Ledbetter to deny the change of location was approved. Only Zook voted against the motion. She added for the record that it had been "insinuated" that her vote was influenced by whom she was related to. She said she had more connections through relatives with the Little Rock School District. "So my vote has nothing to do with whom I'm related to." Only Newton of Zook's connections, to my knowledge, has been directly and actively involved in the application.

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