LRSD, State-Controlled PCSSD Continue Quixotic Crusade Against Quest

Update (April 10, 2014)

In a 6-1 vote, the State Board of Education approved the Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School Districts’ request for appeal of the unanimous Charter Authorizing Panel decision approving the location change for Quest Middle School of West Little Rock. That hearing will take place at the next meeting of the State Board of Education, currently scheduled for May 8th. If the Board approves the change, the decision is final. If it does not, the location process begins anew at the next meeting of the Charter Authorizing Panel.

Original Post

They lost. Badly. Three out of four times. 6-0, 2-5, 6-2, 6-0. But that hasn’t stopped the bill-by-the hour attorneys for the Little Rock and State-controlled Pulaski County Special School Districts, and the latter’s State-appointed superintendent from continuing their Quixotic fight against Quest Middle School of West Little Rock.

The first unanimous approval of Quest, an open-enrollment public charter school, came November 14, 2013. On December 16, 2013, the attorneys and superintendent convinced the State Board of Education (SBE), in a 5-2 vote, to hear their appeal. The appeal was heard on January 10, 2014, and the original decision of the Authorizing Panel was affirmed 6-2. That decision was final and created the charter (contract) between Responsive Education Solutions and the State of Arkansas to open Quest for the 2014-15 school year.

After that approval, when it became apparent that the owner of the originally proposed location at 1815 Rahling Road would not budge on increasing the lease rate by 25% annually over a seven-year lease, Responsive Ed was forced to search for another location. Charters are required to submit a one-page Open-enrollment Public Charter School Facilities Utilization Agreement (p. 81) in their applications, contingent upon final State approval. Unfortunately, because the time between application (September 2013) and revenue (August 2014) is essentially one year, these agreements are unduly burdensome to both the lessee/purchaser and lessor/owner, and obviously not ironclad.

Unlike traditional schools, charters have no access to facilities funding. Every dollar that goes into a lease and/or purchase and/or upgrade of a facility must come from the approximately $6,300 per pupil in State foundation funding.

With precious little, if any, appropriate (approximately 25,000 – 60,00 square feet) and affordable space available for lease or purchase in West Little Rock, the Rahling owner must have thought he had the charter over a barrel. Fortunately, appropriate space for purchase came available at 400 Hardin Road which was not only within the charter’s budget, but would provide a quarter of a million dollar annual savings which could be used for academics. Further, with Responsive Ed’s purchasing the building, then leasing back to Quest, the future facility needs of the school as it adds grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 would have more flexibility – to stay and expand, to expand the high school elsewhere, to sell and buy/build an entirely new campus in another location.

So as required by law, Responsive Ed returned to the Charter Authorizing Panel on March 21st seeking approval for its proposed change in location. Even though the proposed location is properly zoned for a public school, Quest’s location was strongly opposed by David Freiwald, Director of the United States Geological Survey Arkansas Water Science Center (attachment below), tenant of neighboring 401 Hardin. Mr. Freiwald was joined by Jeff Hathaway of Coldwell Banker Commercial Hathaway Group (attachment below), which represents the owner, Jess Woods.

The tenant, commercial realtor and owner took what should have been a Little Rock City Planing Commission issue to the inappropriate forum of the State Charter Authorizing Panel to share their projected Not-in-My-Backyard complaints. Appropriately, their “get-off-my-lawn” objections were rejected, and the location change was unanimously approved by the Panel.

Smelling potential blood in the water, the LRSD attorney also showed up to speak, not armed with the law or rules, but spewing an argument to delay, without legal basis, the opening of Quest by one year because of what he had read in the Arkansas Times. As with his previous unanimous defeat, the attorney chose to appeal to the State Board of Education (letter attached below), noting that he was joined by the Pulaski County Special School District.

For the past two years, the State-appointed superintendent has chosen to exempt the State-controlled Pulaski County School District from the Public School Choice Act of 2013. It is now one of only 13 districts of 238 in Arkansas to do so. So, while the superintendent fights the location of an open-enrollment public charter school outside of his district, he denies entry to those Little Rock and North Little Rock School District parents who live closer to PCSSD schools than to those in their resident districts. Further, by exempting from choice, he also denies LRSD and NLRSD minority students entry to his majority white schools.

As an open-enrollment public school of choice, Quest is open to all, no matter the student’s resident district (register here).

The  latest request for appeal comes Thursday, April 10th at 10:00 am in the Auditorium of the Arkansas Department of Education, as the attorneys and unaccountable superintendent ask the latter’s employer, the State Board of Education, to review the Charter Authorizing Panel’s unanimous decision to allow a Quest location change.

The bottom line: LRSD and PCSSD were against Quest when it was on Rahling. Now, they’re against Quest because it’s not on Rahling. If I were on the State Board, my single question to Mr. Heller and Dr. Guess would be: Where would you propose Quest locate?

If the SBE denies the appeal, the location is final, and Quest leaders, faculty, students and families may finally begin preparing for the 2014-15 school year with certainty. If the SBE hears the appeal, it will be its May meeting before the location could be finalized, less than 90 days before classes are scheduled to begin. If the SBE hears the appeal then denies the change, Quest will have to start the process all over again with a new location, if one may be found.

Get the picture? LRSD’s and PCSSD’s only hope to stop Quest is to deny in order to delay in order to then say Quest did not fulfill its charter by not opening in 2014-15. In the private sector, that would be called tortious interference with a contract.

Hopefully, the State Board will see through the districts’ continued opposition as just another frivolous attempt to interfere with a duly executed contract between Responsive Ed and the State. The charter/contract exists. It requires that Quest open for the 2014-15 school year. If the State does not allow it to have a location, it is violating terms of its own contract.

The fight is different this time. Instead of fighting a proposed charter, these protectionists of failed public education delivery systems are fighting approximately 200 real students and families which have enrolled at Quest for the 2014-15 school year.

If LRSD and PCSSD had fought as hard to provide public secondary education where none exists as they have against Quest, perhaps Quest would have been unnecessary. But they didn’t. So it does. Move on.

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