Following a failed attempt to lease a building from the Jackson Public School District, Midtown Public Charter School will relocate out of the Midtown neighborhood to a building near the intersection of Northside Drive and I-55 for the upcoming school year.
The Charter School Authorizer Board approved the move on Tuesday.
Midtown Public, first opened in 2015, currently serves 240 students in grades 5-8, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. Midtown Partners, the operators of the charter school, attempted to rent Rowan Middle School, which was closed in 2017. The building briefly housed an alternate GED program, but has been unoccupied for multiple years.
Charter schools are free public schools that do not report to a school board, like traditional public schools do. Instead, they are governed by the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board. These schools are controversial among traditional public school supporters because they have more flexibility for teachers and administrators when it comes to student instruction, and are funded by local school districts based on enrollment.
This was the point of contention among JPS supporters and officials. This school year alone, JPS has paid $888,747.60 to the school. If the district allowed Midtown to lease one of its unused buildings, it could recoup funds with the rent and repairs the charter school was willing to make. But the reason Midtown proposed a move at all was to expand enrollment, meaning ultimately JPS would be paying the school more money in future school years.
JPS school board members raised a number of concerns with the proposed lease when it was presented at a board meeting on April 5, including the amount of the rent payments and the processes of maintenance repairs and possible reauthorization of the lease.
The charter school would have paid $78,000 a year in the lease and approximately $115,000 in proposed repairs. Some board members pushed for a higher lease amount, but state law prohibits public school districts from charging above the market value of the property.
There was also a discussion among board members about the broader merits of the charter school system, which Superintendent Errick Greene said should not be conflated with the issue of the lease at hand.
“Whether Midtown, the charter school, should exist or not, should operate in Jackson, Mississippi or not, that’s a worthy discussion and an issue that I’m sure is ripe for some larger movement and lobbying around the law that allows it to be,” Greene said. “We find ourselves in a situation where we have a number of buildings that are shuttered, with lots of ideas about how we might use those buildings, but we have an organization standing in front of us right now with dollars that we know they have because they come through us and go to them, and an opportunity to recoup some of those dollars.”
Board member Cynthia Thompson said she felt they didn’t need to take the first offer that presented itself and suggested recruiting proposals to use the space for another purpose. She also expressed frustration with the design of the charter school system more broadly.
“I understand the constraints that are given to us as a district to follow. But it’s hard to play ball when the other person doesn’t have to follow those rules,” she said.
At the following board meeting on April 19, nine people came to speak with two-thirds opposed to the rental of Rowan.
Ronica Smith, a parent of two Midtown Public students who came to speak in support of the lease, said that her children have done well and been excited about learning since attending.
“Midtown is a good school. If you give Midtown a chance to get Rowan, y’all are going to see, it’s going to blossom,” she said.
Other community members mentioned Midtown’s low test scores as a concern with issuing the lease, which was also previously the subject of state inquiry.
“We live in a state that has historically underfunded the education of Black children, and continues to do so while simultaneously increasing funding to entities such as Midtown Public Charter Schools, which has done a subpar job of educating Black children at best, scoring in the bottom ten percent of Mississippi schools,” said a man who spoke during the public comment section at the meeting.
JPS Board President Ed Sivak pointed out that when Rowan was closed, students in Midtown were instead sent to Brinkley Middle School, which does not score any better than Midtown Public.
The lease was presented again with amendments at the April 19 board meeting, which board member Robert Luckett moved to approve, citing the support of the residents of Midtown for the lease. But lacking support from any other board members, the proposal failed.
Kristi Hendrix, the executive director of Midtown Partners, could not be reached for comment but said in a letter to the Charter School Authorizer Board that the new facility they will be relocating to off of Northside Drive was previously used for education, making it an easy transition.
“We were very hopeful that a lease could be secured with the Jackson Public Schools for the usage of one of their two vacant buildings for the neighborhood,” Hendrix said in the letter. “Despite overwhelming support from the Midtown residents, the Jackson Public School Board expressed their desire to let the building sit vacant as opposed to allowing a charter school to use them.”
Kevin Parkinson, principal of Midtown Public, also could not be reached for comment.