Smilow Prep Charter School Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Operators of a Jackson charter school say the board overseeing charter schools in the state did not take into account the most recent data and denied them due process when considering the school’s contract renewal. 

But Lisa Karmacharya, executive director of the board that made the decision, said the board was simply following guidelines outlined in state law and the recommendation of an evaluation team of independent, highly qualified individuals. 

The Charter School Authorizer Board, the state body that oversees public charter schools in the state, granted Joel E. Smilow Prep in Jackson a four-year contract with conditions at its meeting last week — even though they were eligible for a five-year, unconditional renewal.

State law says a charter school in Mississippi is eligible for a five-year, unconditional renewal if it meets certain criteria. Although the school performed well in the areas of academics and finances, a report by evaluators highlighted deficiencies or lack of data in the category of organizational performance.

Officials from RePublic Schools, which operates Smilow Prep and two other charter schools in Jackson, say a report they received in September of last year showed the school met expectations in all areas of the performance framework, so the news they received in March was “an utter and absolute shock,” said the group’s CEO Jon Rybka.

He called the board’s process — in addition to the lack of opportunity for a public hearing before the board — an “injustice and incredibly poor public policy.” 

Karmacharya, however, said the report from September of 2020 was an annual report that captured a “snapshot in time.” The consideration for contract renewal takes into account a school’s performance over a longer period.

The renewal report stated the school must better measure whether it is successful in the areas of the development of personal discipline, character and citizenship, as the school’s vision states. It also pointed out that only 62% of teachers at the school were certified, but state law requires 75% of teachers to be certified. The law also gives charter schools a three-year period to get uncertified teachers certified.

But the board never specifically asked for any data demonstrating character development in students, and they did not review the most updated teacher certification data, according to Rybka.

Rybka also said they modeled Smilow Prep’s application for renewal on last year’s renewal application for Reimagine Prep, which was approved for another five years with no conditions. That’s another reason it came as a shock that the evaluators wanted data it had not previously sought from Reimagine Prep, which has a similar mission statement around character building for college education and “a life of active citizenship.” 

“Just give us fairness. Tell us what the goalpost is and we will measure ourselves against it,” Rybka said. “When it seems unclear or seems to move and only surfaces in moments like these, it seems that the people who get hurt are the kids and the families.”

Karmacharya, however, said evaluators and the board were following board-issued guidance for renewing a school’s contract, which clearly states schools must demonstrate they are meeting the terms of their contract. And they consider each school’s application for renewal separately.  

Karmacharya also said she and the board were simply following state law when RePublic’s request for a public hearing was denied.

“Statute says if you are non-renewed, you are eligible for a hearing. Because they were renewed, they weren’t eligible for a hearing, but they did have an opportunity for public comment” during the board meeting, she said.

She said the four-year renewal with conditions does not mean RePublic is not a valued part of the charter school community.

“The RePublic team is doing wonderful things for children and families in the community,” Karmacharya said. “There’s evidence of progress (in Smilow Prep), and the board recognized that in giving them the four-year renewal.” 

Smilow Prep has increased its ‘D’ rating in the first two years of operation to a ‘C’ rating in 2018-2019. It retained the ‘C’ grade in 2019-2020 due to the cancellation of state testing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. School leaders also say data shows students perform exceptionally well in growth, as many enter the school multiple grade levels behind.

Public charter schools in Mississippi 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 tax receipts. When a student enrolls in a charter school, money that would have gone to the public school district moves with the student to the charter school.

The Mississippi Legislature passed the charter school law in 2013. There are currently seven charter schools in operation with two more slated to open in the fall of 2022.

One of those will be operated by RePublic Schools. Revive Prep, a kindergarten through 8th grade school, will be the organization’s fourth charter school in Jackson.

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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.