From a corner office of an administration building for Shelby County Schools, just three people oversee 45 charter schools that educate 12,200 Memphis students.
That’s more than 10 percent of the student population in Tennessee’s largest school district — and too many students being monitored by too few people, say district leaders.
On Tuesday, the school board will review a proposal to continue work with a national charter group to develop best practices in managing its increasing workload. A $152,000 grant from the Hyde Family Foundation would fund the work with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) to establish clearer processes to approve, oversee and revoke charters — issues that this year prompted a reprimand from the State Board of Education. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat Tennessee is a nonprofit news organization that receives financial support from the Hyde Family Foundation. You can see the full list of our financial supporters here.)
The guidance from NACSA would signify the district’s commitment to working with its charter sector as it seeks to improve Memphis schools. It also would provide a valuable resource for a newly formed charter advisory committee, charged with setting the ground rules for issues such as charter accountability, funding, academic standards and facility needs.
The Chicago-based NACSA association helps local districts and other charter authorizers to open charter schools, as well as close failing ones.
Charter oversight was the topic of a school board subcommittee meeting last week on academic performance. Charisse Sales, the district’s director of charter schools and one of its three overseers, told members that NACSA recommends about 7.5 central office staff for every 10 charter schools. That would equate to about 34 staff for Shelby County Schools. But Sales, who has worked with Memphis charters since the state allowed them in 2003, said those positions wouldn’t necessarily have to be in the charter office. Even now, the charter office uses expertise of other district departments on charter matters.
“We have three people. But as you dig deeper into the accountability piece, (you’re) treading water,” Sales said.
NACSA vice president William Haft says charter authorizers’ methodology and staffing ratio vary based on a district’s needs.
“As you build those systems, there are choices to make. Do we have this information run through the charter office and build up capacity within the charter office … or do we do that through the department with the substantive expertise?” he told Chalkbeat.
Staffing also touches on funding issues, partly addressed through the district’s new charter authorizer fee, which channels to the district up to 4 percent of an operator’s state-allocated funds based on student enrollment. Officials say the fee, implemented this year, will help with administration costs.
The district’s work with NACSA would help inform where best to use that money, board member Chris Caldwell said. The State Board of Education and state-run Achievement School District previously had been the only charter authorizers in Tennessee able to levy a fee.
NACSA already is familiar with Memphis’ charter landscape. The association helped the ASD review and evaluate charter applications in its turnaround work, which is mostly in Memphis, and garnered praise from former superintendent Chris Barbic in a testimonial on the group’s website. The association also helped the State Board of Education create a framework in 2014 for authorizing and monitoring charter schools.
Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, who is a non-voting member of the charter advisory committee, said the collaboration with NACSA will be worth it.
“This is an opportunity to give us a road map in order to be successful,” Bibbs told Sales. “I think whatever their suggestions are will be an opportunity for us to advocate for an investment in your area.”