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    2 charter schools set to open in Shelby County, 12 others wait for 2014

    By Jane Roberts - The Commercial Appeal -

    Of the 14 charter schools in limbo since the Shelby County unified school board rejected their applications in November, two intend to open this summer.

    Memphis Grizzlies Prep and Aurora Collegiate Academy, both backed by philanthropists, will open in July despite nearly six months of indecision, delay and red tape.

    The rest, including nine schools proposed by former mayor Willie Herenton, plan to open a year later.

    "When formal approval is granted, we will move forward with nine schools," Herenton said Thursday after an appeals hearing conducted by the state Board of Education.

    It was the second shortest hearing in department history, noted executive director Gary Nixon, largely because there was no legal reason why the schools should not open.

    The school board opposed two other charters at hearings later in the afternoon, but no one spoke against the 14 other schools, which have passed through all the state and local hoops but still do not have definitive approval.

    While the state board will take public comment for another week, "it's probably pretty clear what the answer will be," Nixon said.

    The board will convene May 16 by teleconference to vote.

    "Clearly Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, when they look at these applications, they think they have a game plan that will work," said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association.

    "I hope the state Board of Education would support the grading process they have gone through."

    Meanwhile, the Grizzlies Academy is preparing to move into the former Federal Reserve Building off Third Street Downtown, and Aurora is negotiating for space with the Boys & Girls Club in North Memphis and the Catholic Diocese of Memphis for space in the vacant St. James church on LeRoy, also in North Memphis.

    The Tennessee Charter School Incubator has given more than $100,000 to help with facility costs, said Greg Thompson, incubator CEO.

    The incubator also paid $250,000 to train Aurora's principal, he said.

    "Elizabeth (Simpson) has started recruiting with intent-to-enroll forms. About 50 to 60 families have signed up," he said.

    Since charter school law was adopted in Tennessee in 2002, charter operators have never had to go through such a process to get approved.

    The situation stems directly from a state law passed last year that allows local school boards to deny even strong applicants if the board can prove the charter would hurt the district financially.

    Based on estimated enrollment in the new schools, plus growth in 25 existing charters, Memphis City Schools said it would cost $24 million -- the equivalent of 400 jobs -- to allow the schools to open.

    On April 4, state Treasurer David Lillard overruled the school board, saying the charters would cost the district $13.2 million, dropping enrollment only 1.38 percent.

    If the state board approves, each school still must be approved by the school board.

    "It's a matter of procedure," said school board member Freda Williams. "When we get the ruling from the state board, we will move from there."

    The fiscal impact law has been tested three times since it was passed. In every case, Lillard ruled the boards had not proven their point.

    Every school Herenton intended to open is on hold. The same is true with Arrow Collegiate Academy, a subsidiary of New Olivet Baptist Church, where school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. is pastor.

    "We're looking for excellent people," said Marie Milan, chief academic officer of Herenton's W.E.B. DuBois Consortium.

    "You can't hurry that."

    The first day of school in the seven DuBois charters Herenton intended to open in Memphis was to be in two months.

    His proposal is based on getting free space from the district in a compact he says he submitted to the school board two weeks ago.

    "We have not heard anything back. I am still going to move forward, even if we don't get a compact."

    -- Jane Roberts: (901) 529-2512