Concern in Clarksdale over charter school

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Mississippi’s first rural charter school is set to open next fall, but some residents of the school’s future home in Clarksdale wish it had never been approved.

The Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board at a meeting Oct. 30, 2017

The Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board approved Clarksdale Collegiate Prep’s application September, but a group of Clarksdale residents and legislators have petitioned the board to reconsider their decision.

Led by Amanda Johnson, the school will open in the 2018-19 school year with a projected 150 kindergarteners through second-graders.

Charter schools are free public schools that cannot charge tuition and allow teachers and administrators more freedom in student instruction.  Although they adhere to the same academic and accountability standards as traditional public schools, critics argue charter schools sap public funding from traditional public schools.

Charter schools in rural settings are the subject of a Mississippi Today event Tuesday in Clarksdale and Wednesday in Indianola. The program, free and open to all, will bring together local, state and national legislative and educational leaders to discuss the special challenges facing charter schools in a rural setting.

Prior to the approval of Clarksdale Collegiate, a group of Clarksdale area residents sent the state authorizer board a petition with more than 1,300 signatures opposing Clarksdale Collegiate, claiming it would “help to destroy our existing public schools in Coahoma County” by taking away funding from public schools. The petition also stated that the proposed charter school would “help to segregate students in Coahoma County, MS and create a dual education system inside of the existing public education system.”

In the 2016-17 school year, the Coahoma County School District was nearly 90 percent black and enrolled 1,495 students; Clarksdale Municipal School District was nearly 97 percent black and enrolled 2,675 students.

In August, Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy, Rep. Orlando Paden, D-Clarksdale, Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Marks, Rep. Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica, parent Jeffrey Gooden and the Coahoma County chapter of the NAACP each wrote a letter to the authorizer board asking it to reject Clarksdale Collegiate Prep’s charter school application.

The legislators, mayor and NAACP touched on similar messages in their letters, stating the proposed school would pull much-needed dollars from the city and county public schools.

Mississippi House

Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Marks

“Schools that are to be supported with taxpayer dollars should serve all of the students in their district fairly and succinctly,” Jackson wrote in his letter. “Clearly, this charter school will not measure up.”

The authorizer board ultimately decided the school did measure up. It approved Clarksdale Collegiate’s application on Sept. 11.

At the meeting, both Jackson and Paden expressed their concern about how the charter school’s approval would divert funding from public schools.

On Sept. 18, a group called the “Concerned Citizens of Clarksdale & Coahoma County” sent the board another letter requesting members reconsider their approval of the charter school’s application.

The group had three specific reasons for their request: there was a “substantive and procedural” lack of due process, no public comment before the board’s vote, and “the general public did not have enough time to assess the application of Clarksdale Collegiate.” Nineteen people signed the letter.

In the letter, the group also requested 10 extra days to supplement their request for consideration.

In a separate complaint, the group addressed Marian Schutte, executive director of the Charter School Authorizer Board and included sworn affidavits from a collection of residents and leaders, including Mayor Espy, multiple parents, and each of the legislators who sent a letter to the board, among others.

On. Oct. 13 the group attempted to attach themselves as plaintiffs to a longstanding federal desegregation order under which the school district operates. U.S. District Judge Michael Mills denied their request, as well as their request for a temporary restraining order.

Attorney Alvin Chambliss, who represents the group, filed a notice acknowledging he would appeal the judge’s decision, but a clerk from the U.S. Court of Appeals responded with a letter on Nov. 3 explaining the proper process to file an appeal.

Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School

Amanda Johnson is the leader of Clarksdale Collegiate Prep charter school.

The authorizer board went on to approve the contract with Clarksdale Collegiate at an Oct. 30 meeting, and later responded to the concerned citizens group with a Nov. 3 letter that acknowledged the board received their Sept. 18 letter. In response to the allegation that the public was not given time to consider the charter school’s application, the board noted the school’s proposal was posted online on July 11 for public review, and there was a public hearing in Clarksdale on Aug. 14.

“Consequently, the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board provided ample opportunity for public comment and fully complied with state law prior to making its determination to approve the charter school proposal from Clarksdale Collegiate,” the letter said.

Attempts to reach the opponents of the charter school for additional comment were unsuccessful.