By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County's first charter school could be facing closure -- at least as a publicly funded institution -- unless the Georgia Board of Education overturns a decision made by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission on Dec. 14, to deny the Riverdale-based school a 10-year charter.
The commission's decision is based on an interview panel's report on Lewis Academy, which raised concerns over the 675-student school's curriculum, student performance goals, fiscal feasibility, and a lack of details on how "exceptional students" would be educated.
If a charter is not granted by the Georgia Board of Education at its meeting next month, then Lewis Academy's days as a taxpayer-funded charter school will be over, according to Georgia Charter Schools Commission Chairman Ben Scafidi.
"If their [Lewis Academy's] charter with the school system expires at the end of this school year, and they have not been approved for a new charter by the Department of Education, then they would have to close," Scafidi said.
The Georgia Department of Education is reviewing the commission's decision on Lewis Academy, and will vote on accepting, or rejecting, it in February, Scafidi said. The state school board can overturn a decision by the commission with a two-thirds vote, he added.
According to Clayton County Public Schools' Coordinator of Special Projects Delphia Young, Lewis Academy is in the final year of its initial charter, which was approved in 2005. Young said she was assigned to work with the school's officials on the renewal of its charter, but she said that Lewis Academy's move to get approval by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission was not done in consultation with the Clayton County school system.
Scafidi said there are two ways a charter school can be approved in Georgia. One way, he said, is to go to the local school board for approval, and the petition is then passed on to the Georgia Board of Education. The other way is to go to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission for approval, but the state school board still reviews the decisions, and can overrule those decisions with the two-thirds vote, he said.
Young said that, even though she has not been involved in Lewis Academy's efforts to go through the state commission, she does know that the school is appealing the denial of its charter petition to the Georgia Board of Education.
The school's 175-page charter petition, filed with the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, shows that the school intended to expand, but it is not clear to what grade levels. One part of the petition's executive summary shows that the school would expand to be a pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade institution. But, an enrollment projection shown underneath that statement gives projections for kindergarten, through the ninth-grade.
Lewis Academy of Excellence Founder and Chief Executive Officer Patricia Lewis could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The interview panel's concerns
The commission's interview panel expressed concerns over what curriculum Lewis Academy would use to teach students in the upper grades, if it was expanded beyond the fifth-grade. The petition calls for the establishment of a "Junior Academy" that would include students in grades six through eight.
The curriculum used for these grades levels is described as being one that follows "researched best practices that align with Georgia Professional Standards, but utilize additional innovative resources, strategies and materials." The petition does not specify what topics students will be studying, at what grade levels, however.
"The existing charter school educates students in grades K through 5, and the present application contemplates educating students through the ninth-grade," according to the panel's report. "However, the application failed to include additional details regarding the type of middle and high school curricula that the charter school intends to utilize."
According to the report, the panel also raised concerns that the benchmark for student achievement that is outlined in Lewis Academy's petition calls for 75 percent of students to meet or exceed state standards on the math and reading sections of Georgia's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCTs), but those tests do not apply to 9th grade students.
The panel also recommended further financial review of Lewis Academy, because of an undated "recent" audit by Clayton County Public Schools, which revealed a lack of a fixed-asset system; the existence of multiple bank accounts "that are not designated for specific expenses;" late remittances of payroll taxes and payments to the Teachers Retirement System; multiple late charges and overdraft fees, "unresolved payroll concerns," and "untimely bank reconciliations."
The panel also cited a certified audit for the 2008-2009 school that Lewis Academy did not submit to the Georgia Department of Education until Dec. 9, 2009. "Under the circumstances, a recommendation to approve a charter for Lewis Academy of Excellence is not prudent until the current authorizers undertake, and complete, a thorough review of the charter school's financial statements," the panel wrote in its report.
Other concerns expressed by the panel included: "The petitioning group lacked sufficient detail as to how the charter school would fulfill state and federal requirements, regarding the education of exceptional students;" and "the lack of Certificates of Occupancy for two modular units; insufficient square footage for the safety of occupants; and the failure to submit a safety plan approved by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency."
A history of ups and downs
Lewis Academy's history has been a roller coaster ride since the school opened in 2005. It has made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) during each of its first four years of operation, a point which school officials have touted as a sign that they are doing well. Officials also just opened a new classroom building to ease crowding at the school.
Past struggles, however, include accusations by Clayton County Public Schools officials that the school wasn't able to prove it was doing background checks on teachers; that minutes for meetings of it governing board were missing, and that it had failed to make some payments to the Teacher Retirement System.
A 2006 audit of the school's financial information alleged that its financial records were in disarray, including a lack of financial statements, no income controls and no purchasing policy, insufficient expenditure documentation, and poor accounting procedures.
In the summer of 2006, the school's then-location, Riverdale First United Methodist Church, filed a civil suit against the school for unpaid rent and utility bills. In May 2007, church officials notified the school's officials that Lewis Academy's lease would not be renewed.
At that point, Clayton County school officials informed members of the Clayton County Board of Education that they were ready to seek the revocation of Lewis Academy's charter.
Lewis Academy officials were able to avoid closure at the time, however, by buying the old Woodward Academy Busey Campus in Riverdale, where the school has been located since August 2007.