Erik Estill, executive director of LEAD Academy, speaks to the Alabama Public Charter School Commission on Oct. 10, 2023. (Jemma Stephenson/ Alabama Reflector)
The Alabama Public School Charter Commission Tuesday renewed the contracts of two charter schools.
Montgomery-based LEAD Academy, opened in 2019 and approved as a kindergarten to eventually twelfth grade school, received a renewal for two years.
The charter has dealt with crises and controversy since opening its doors, which members of the commission alluded to Tuesday.
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“We will be helping you with everything we can but just understand our role is to hold you accountable as well,” said Luis Ferrer, chair of the commission.
In 2019, a former principal sued the school, alleging mismanagement and discrimination. In 2020, the school dismissed another principal. Also in 2020, a vendor alleged that the school had not paid them.
Ferrer told LEAD that they saw the school’s potential.
Members of the commission discussed the test scores of the school, and the school’s financial viability, especially in the light of the school’s need to repay funds for the nutrition program. LEAD won a nearly $2 million judgment against a cafeteria vendor in January, but wrote in a court filing in August that it had not yet been able to collect the money.
“This is the elephant in the room that we know people have been concerned about,” said Erik Estill, executive director of LEAD.
Estill told commissioners that they were ensuring that similar instances to the food vendor situation would not happen again. He said he now looks at the numbers personally.
“That will never happen again,” he said.
After a roughly one-hour executive session that was not open to the public, the commission voted to approve the charter.
Both of the deliberations about the renewals were conducted in an executive session under the “contested case” portion of the Alabama open meetings law.
Lane Knight, an attorney for the commission, said that a charter renewal is a license under the Alabama Administrative Procedures Act.
“A grant over a revocation or a renewal of a license, by definition, is a contested case,” Knight said. “So I guess that’s as bluntly as I can put it. This is governed by state law.”
The commission also voted to renew the contract for Legacy Prep, a charter school based in Birmingham, for four years.
Commissioners cited their appreciation of the school succeeding with 99.7% of their student body as economically disadvantaged.
“It’s admirable you have a 99%– let me repeat that 99% — poverty and you guys are doing so well,” said Ferrer.
In response to a question from Ferrer about support, Renata Johnson, head of school for Legacy Prep, said that they would appreciate more funding. She said that part of that is their desire to have buses because their parents have had to drive their students to and from school everyday for five years.
“And not just financial but the resources that we need, we just don’t have access to them,” she said.
The school is working with the Alabama State Department of Education to have transportation in the future.
After the meeting, Ferrer said that there is not a standard period of time for renewal. For considering these schools’ applications, Ferrer said that they had considered things like performance and following through with what was told to the commission. He also looked at the performance of Legacy Prep, with 99.7% of its student body economically disadvantaged, and LEAD, with 65% of its student body economically disadvantaged.
“You’re looking at one school that has 99% poverty, whose growth is in the 90s where you have one that is 60% (poverty) and is underperforming,” said Ferrer.
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