To ward off the prospect of yet another state-controlled charter school in its midst, the Shelby County Schools board on Tuesday approved a new Memphis charter school that it could keep under its own oversight.

Last month, the State Board of Education overturned the Memphis district’s decision to deny Beacon College Preparatory permission to open an elementary school in Raleigh, a neighborhood that district staff said was “saturated” with other schools. The state board said denying the school solely based on where it wanted to open, a component of the board’s new charter school policy, was not allowed under state guidelines.

The state’s reversal of the Memphis board’s vote opened the possibility of the state board operating its second charter school in the city if Shelby County Schools refused to accept the decision. But local board members said they would rather have oversight of the new school.

“As long as we control the hammer, we at least have a fighting chance,” board member Kevin Woods said. The district oversees 57 charter schools, just over half of the privately managed but publicly funded schools in the state.

The local board’s vote reveals a district attempting to wrestle some control over schools away from the state, which has had a growing role in Memphis education over the last decade.

Superintendent Joris Ray presenting to school board members in September.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Superintendent Joris Ray did not come to the board with a recommendation on Beacon Prep. He said he and his top leaders debated for nearly an hour Monday on whether or not to authorize the school and didn’t come to a conclusion.

“As superintendent, I see this both ways… If we bring this school under our jurisdiction, we’re really going against our own policy and what we believe,” Ray told board members. “However, if we allow the state board to operate this particular charter… we need to go ahead and push for legislation at the state to really honor saturation and take that under consideration.”

At the urging of board members, Ray finally recommended approval, to enable district control. However, he suggested reconsidering district policy on neighborhood saturation.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said if the board gave in to the state’s decision, that may “diminish state urgency to recognize saturation,” an old sore spot for board members who want to keep more students in district-run schools.

Leon said that letting the state’s newly created charter commission operate more schools could siphon off more funding from the local district. (The commission convenes in January 2021 and will replace the state board’s role with charter schools.)

“One school may not seem consequential,” he told board members. “But if it’s not addressed, over time it does become a much bigger issue.”

Joe Bolduc, Beacon Prep’s founder, said before the vote that he would rather operate the school under the local district.

“We believe that local oversight of charter schools is not only in the best interest of our school and our community, but also in the best interest of Shelby County Schools,” Buldoc said during the meeting’s public comment period.

The vote to authorize Beacon was 7 to1, with Stephanie Love opposing. Billy Orgel was absent for the vote.