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BOE denies new charter to Lewis Academy

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Lewis Academy of Excellence may be down to its last card.

The Riverdale-based charter school, which enrolled more than 600 students last year, will have to appeal to the Georgia Department of Education, and the State Board of Education, without the support of Clayton County Public Schools, if it wants to open its doors this school year.

That is because the Clayton County Board of Education voted 6-3, Monday, to deny a new charter to the school. School Board Members Jessie Goree, Trinia Garrett and Michael King voted against denial of a new charter for the school.

Lewis Academy's original five-year charter expired this past summer. It cannot begin classes for the 2010-2011 school year, which began more than a month ago for the rest of the county, until it has a new charter.

The decision of the local school board to deny a new charter came at the request of School System Superintendent Edmond Heatley, who cited ongoing, alleged deficiencies with -- among other things -- the school's ability to pay its bills on time; make payments to the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia; comply with special education laws, and hire highly qualified teachers.

"My recommendation is that the board of education deny the charter renewal request by Lewis Academy of Excellence," Heatley said.

The school's last chance to open this year now falls to the appeals process. Heatley said Lewis Academy officials can appeal the local school board's decision to the Georgia Department of Education, and the State Board of Education. Officials at the state level could side with Lewis Academy, and grant the school a new charter, he said.

And, appealing is just what Patricia Lewis, Lewis Academy's founder and chief executive officer, said she plans to do. "We're going to appeal this to the state," she said. "We had an agreement with the state that we would forward their [the Clayton County school board's] decision, whether it was denial, or approval."

The school has been in a protracted battle to win a new charter for more than a year. The Clayton County Board of Education initially approved a conditional, one-year charter extension in July 2009. Lewis Academy officials, however, turned around and filed a petition with the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, for a 10-year charter that would allow the school to expand to middle-school grades.

The commission rejected that charter petition in December 2009, and the State Board of Education upheld that decision in February of this year. School officials then worked on getting their one-year extension approved by the state, but the Georgia Department of Education cited 31 concerns with that petition in May. Lewis Academy officials then turned around, and filed a new petition, for a multi-year charter, in June.

Lewis Academy of Excellence was the county's first charter school when it opened in the fall of 2005, but it has often been plagued with controversies. Those issues range from questions raised about its financial record-keeping, during its first year, to nearly having to close after the owners of the school's original home, Riverdale First United Methodist Church, chose not to renew the school's lease after its second year.

More recently, the school has been the subject of a probe to determine whether cheating took place during the administration of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCTs), in the spring of 2009.

In outlining the results of the district's review of Lewis Academy's most recent petition, Heatley pointed to some of the school's past issues, but also listed what he said were fresh deficiencies in the charter petition.

The superintendent said there were concerns with the school's governing board; fiscal controls; hiring policies and practices; maintenance of facilities; transportation; test management and security; student assessment and data collection; and special needs and English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students.

"I feel very confident in my recommendation, and I stand by it," Heatley said.

Lewis said the local school board's denial of Lewis Academy's latest petition should free the charter school of any ties it has to Clayton County Public Schools. She said the decision will free up Lewis Academy to become a state charter school, that is free of any local oversight by the county school system.

"It's taken them almost two years to deny us a new charter," she said. "They've had us tied up, and we couldn't move forward."

School Board Member Goree asked Heatley why it took district officials more than two months to review Lewis Academy's latest charter petition, and bring a recommendation to the school board. Heatley defended the lengthy review by arguing that his staff had been diligent in going over the petition. "Even on vacation, even on the weekends, we were reviewing these things," he said. "We were doing our due diligence, to make sure we did not overlook anything."

In a meeting with parents, after the board voted, Lewis almost appeared glad to see this outcome, while she was criticizing the district at the same time. "I'm not worried about this," she told the parents, "This is a good thing, really, in a way to me, because I want God to take care of this," she said.

Another hot-button topic that came before the board, but got shot down, was a revision of the policy dealing with bus transportation for students. The policy, which had not been enforced for several years until this fall, mandates that the district not provide bus transportation to students who live within a mile and a half of the schools they attend.

There were 4,600 students affected by the decision to enforce it this year. Goree pushed an amendment to the policy, that would reinstate bus transportation to all elementary school students. The amendment failed by a 3-6 vote. Only Goree, Garrett and King voted in favor of it.