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    Gates group referees charter school discussions

    After meeting for 2 days, they agree to keep talking

    By Jane Roberts - The Commercial Appeal -

    Few public pairings are as complicated as the relationship between Memphis City Schools and its charter schools.

    They squabble over money and facilities and compete for students in a cycle that repeats every year.

    This week, with the help of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the sides talked frankly for two days at the University of Memphis in what could be the first steps toward an agreement to work together.

    Gates has helped negotiate compacts between charters and school districts in 16 other cities, including Nashville.

    "We left this with it's always better to keep talking than not talking," said Don Shalvey, deputy director of Gates' U.S. education portfolio.

    The foundation underwrites each partnership with $100,000, working on the notion "that having silos around good practices does not seem to work to the advantage of kids."

    It has nine cities in the process of forming compacts this year. Memphis is not one of them.

    This is the second time Gates has tried to facilitate compact talks here. They ended abruptly in 2010 when MCS and the charters were feuding about a 3 percent "service fee" MCS wanted to charge the charters to cover administrative costs.

    Instead Gates went to Nashville, which signed a compact in late 2010, the first in Tennessee.

    "The idea now makes a lot of sense to parents," said Jeremy Kane, founder and CEO of Lead Public Schools, a charter company approved to take over two Metro Nashville schools.

    Nashville agreed to use the same data system, combine registration and share food service facilities.

    In Chicago, charter operators agree to open schools in the highest-need areas, which helps the school district with its planning. For that concession, the Chicago Public Schools agrees to give every charter access to information on vacant buildings and where its high-need areas are.

    "Once you put it on paper, there is power behind it," Kane said.

    But he says the issues are more entrenched in Memphis. For one thing, Memphis has more charter schools than all other Tennessee cities combined.

    "Memphis has similarities to Chicago and New York; there is not quite as much trust there. Trust is really an important underpinning of a successful relationship."

    Recently, the school board rejected 14 charter applications, including 12 operators who planned to open schools in Memphis this fall.

    Because charters are public schools, tax money for education follows the student.

    The school board said the cost of supporting 12 new charter schools plus the 27 already approved or in operation would cost the district $87 million in revenue.

    By law, the state treasurer must decide if the district's fiscal claim is true. But by late this week, no decision had been made, which means the charters are still waiting to recruit students and hire teachers.

    They blame the district for the hardship. "We can't negotiate on a building because bankers want to see that you have been approved," said Carlos Shaw, who applied to open a middle school next fall.

    It would open with 100 sixth-graders and grow to 300 students in three grades when the school is full, presumably in three years.

    Currently, 6.3 percent of city school children are enrolled in charters. If 12 more are approved, the percentage will increase to 10 percent.

    "I like the idea of having an open conversation and agreeing there will be future meetings between the charters and the district," said Jamal McCall, head of KIPP Memphis, one of the city's largest and most successful charter schools.

    "The next conversation will be a work session on school bus routes and buildings, the big-ticket items we all know can save money on both sides."

    -- Jane Roberts: (901) 529-2512