Two Jackson charter schools have been approved to enroll more students than originally planned next school year.

The state charter authorizer board on Monday approved expanding enrollment to up to 600 students at Reimagine Prep and Smilow Prep, both in Jackson. The schools are operated by Nashville-based RePublic Schools, whose representatives requested the enrollment increase because of high demand in the Jackson community.

The authorizer board’s action means that Reimagine Prep’s contract will be increased from the current 440 total students, while Smilow Prep would increase from the current 476 total students.

“We take very seriously our charge to serve as many kids in Mississippi as possible,” RePublic Schools CEO Ravi Gupta told board members before they voted.

At the same time, however, the board approved RePublic Schools request for a one-year delay in opening another Jackson-area elementary school originally planned for the 2017-2018 school year.

Gupta said the group has not been able to find a strong enough leader for the school and believes it’s better to hold off opening that facility for an additional year.

“The number one question on our list is ‘Do we have a capable, strong leader in place? We will not open a school if we don’t have an affirmative ‘yes,’ ” he told the board.

Both moves come amid a pending lawsuit against charter schools in the state. The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and parents of students in Jackson Public Schools, questions the constitutionality of the law establishing charter schools, particularly the funding of charter schools through state and local tax dollars.

In Mississippi, charter schools are funded by the state on a per-pupil basis according to the school’s average daily attendance, or the number of students who attend 63 percent or more of a school day. They also receive local dollars from ad valorem receipts that follow the students from the public schools to the charter schools.

Opponents of charter schools say they siphon money away from traditional public schools. According to the lawsuit, the operation of Midtown Public Charter School and Reimagine Prep last year resulted in a loss of $1.85 million in funding for Jackson Public Schools. Smilow Prep began operations this school year.

RePublic Schools opened Reimagine Prep in 2015 to 5th graders and expanded the school to include 6th grade this year.

The move to add more students will require adding associate teachers to the faculty, which Kate Cooper, RePublic’s director of growth and advancement, says will allow teachers to teach more classes.

“We do add full-time teachers who are certified teaching a full instructional block and then bring on certifiable instructional fellows as well … (those who are) working in training to become teachers. We combine those two to increase the amount of teachers,” Gupta said.

Both Reimagine Prep and Midtown Public Charter School struggled in their first year, receiving D and F ratings from the state. The ratings reflect how schools and school districts do on student achievement, test-score growth, graduation rate and students’ participation in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual enrollment classes.

Cooper said Reimagine Prep will work additional square footage into its current expansion plan to accommodate more students, but Smilow Prep’s building is already large enough.

Board member Karen Elam asked whether expanding enrollment will negatively impact the schools’ test scores.

“Every indication shows this is going to be a much stronger year academically than last year,” Gupta responded.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.