Stakes are high for Museum School as it pursues a state charterThe Museum School of Avondale Estates Executive Director Katherine Kelbaugh. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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Avondale Estates, GA – With about eight months left on their contract with DeKalb County Schools, the leaders of The Museum School of Avondale Estates on Nov. 8, 2021 confronted their “worst fear.”
What was the worst thing that could happen? A contract extension.
The DeKalb County School Board renewed the school’s contract for three years, allowing it to continue operating as a county school. The school’s governing board rejected that renewal.
It’s unlikely that the school will close when the contract ends, but for the school to remain open, the school’s differences with DeKalb County Schools must be resolved one way or another by the end of June.
Charter schools operate independently of school districts through agreements called charters. In exchange for autonomy, the schools agree to meet higher academic standards. Local charters are created by a three-party agreement between the school, the local school board and the Georgia Board of Education.
The Museum School wants to end its agreement with DeKalb County Schools, which expires June 30, 2022. The school’s leaders want a new charter granted by the State Charter Schools Commission [SCSC], because they feel it’s a better fit for them.
“The Museum School has been interested in a charter with the State Charter Schools Commission because we feel that they are better aligned with our strategic goals and desire to expand and replicate our model,” Museum School Board Chair Kelly Swinks said.
In the school’s charter renewal application submitted in August 2021, Swinks asked the DeKalb County School Board to deny the school’s application.
“[The Museum School] is submitting this application with a request that DCSD agree to a non-renewal so that [The Museum School] can pursue authorization through the SCSC,” the renewal application says.
The Museum School in the past could’ve bypassed the county school district and pursued a state charter without seeking a renewal from a local school district. But a recent rule change by the SCSC means that the renewal application must be rejected by the local school board before it can become a state charter.
The SCSC made the rule change for budgetary reasons. State charter schools get extra money from the state because they don’t get any local funding.
The rule change complicated things for The Museum School.
In an Aug. 9, 2021, email to the SCSC, Swinks wrote, “It is our worst fear that [DeKalb County Schools] will renew our charter and prevent us from transitioning to the SCSC. We feel like we have no choice but to submit an application or we will lose the school entirely.”
But the SCSC now says The Museum School can become a state charter if the Georgia Board of Education rejects the charter renewal.
The Georgia BOE hasn’t rejected a renewal petition approved by a local school board since the SCSC was formed in 2013. In the past, SCSC has allowed a handful of locally authorized charters to become state charter schools without seeking renewal from their local school board. In 2020, SCSC implemented a new rule: the commission will now only grant a state charter to a locally authorized school if the local authorizer declines to renew the charter contract. The SCSC considers a denial by the state Board of Education to be good enough for a state charter.
Experts Decaturish spoke to say The Museum School’s dilemma is unprecedented in the brief history of charter schools in Georgia.
Andrew Lewis is an expert on Georgia charter schools and once served as executive vice president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. He currently is the vice president of Opus, a finance and operations platform for charter schools.
“This has not been tested, so there is no precedent,” Lewis said.
A game of chicken
Precedent isn’t the only legal question hanging over the school. There’s also a dispute between the school and the district about the lease for the building.
The Museum School operates in the old Forrest Hills Elementary building located on Forrest Boulevard in greater Decatur. The Museum School in its renewal application asked DeKalb County Schools to turn over the deed for the building.
The county wants to change the terms of the school’s lease, so the school community won’t be reimbursed for the cost of building improvements they’ve paid for.
The Museum School is considering a lawsuit to resolve this dispute. DeKalb County Schools has not returned messages seeking comment.
It’s likely these questions will be sorted out by a judge, attorney Micah Barry said.
Barry is an instructor at the University of North Georgia who specializes in educational employment law. He has dealt with charter schools in his practice.
“At the end of the day the law gets made by judges, and this has never come up before,” Barry said. “If I were betting, I would probably bet this would go in favor of the charter school, but you never know until you get in front of a judge. What I can say is both of them are going to spend a lot of money figuring it out.”
Lewis, the charter schools expert, said The Museum School and county school district are playing a “game of chicken.” The stakes for the school are high. DeKalb County Schools has a poor reputation as an authorizer of charter schools, but the district has more leverage as the local authorizer and owner of the building.
“In my opinion, their path for the future is murky until this is resolved,” Lewis said.
Museum School Executive Director Katherine Kelbaugh insists that no matter what happens, the school will not close.
“We do not see closing the school as an option,” Kelbaugh said.
A record of excellence
The K-8 school opened in 2010 as a state charter school in modular buildings at Avondale Estates Baptist Church. In 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court declared the state charter school law unconstitutional.
“Gov. [Nathan] Deal at the time encouraged local districts to adopt these schools and DeKalb County adopted and approved The Museum School and they’ve been a DeKalb County school since,” Lewis said.
The shotgun marriage between DeKalb County Schools and The Museum School began in 2011, and the school moved into its current home in 2012.
The school has spent $7 million on facility upgrades. Since joining DeKalb County, the school has thrived.
It has an enrollment of almost 600 students, and uses the “museum model.” The school partners with local museums as part of its curriculum, holding “Exhibit Night” four times a year. During Exhibit Night, students play docents, taking visitors on a tour and answering their questions about what they’re learning.
The model works. In the 2014-2015 school year, The Museum School was the fourth ranked start-up charter in Georgia and among the top 10 schools in DeKalb County. In 2019, the Georgia Charter School Association named it the Charter School of the Year.
The school changed civic life in Avondale Estates. At one point, three out of the five members of the Avondale Estates Board of Mayor and Commissioners had children at the school. In a 2019 candidate Q&A, Mayor Jonathan Elmore – whose wife is on the school’s advisory council board of directors and was a founding Museum School board member – said the school has transformed the city.
“The Museum School is one of the best things to ever happen to our community,” Elmore said. “It has brought new families to Avondale Estates and is one the best elementary schools in the state.”
During the Nov. 8, 2021, DeKalb County School Board meeting, School Board Member Marshall Orson agreed that the school is doing well academically.
“Over time, this school overall has been a high performing school, but one of the big areas lagging has been in its enrollment of economically disadvantaged students,” Orson said at the meeting.
At Orson’s suggestion, the school board made the school’s three-year renewal conditioned upon enrolling more low-income students. The DeKalb County School Board directed the school to achieve this by giving these students more weight in the school’s attendance lottery.
According to records obtained by Decaturish and interviews with school leaders, enrolling more disadvantaged students isn’t a deal-breaker for The Museum School. They’re more concerned about something the county school board didn’t discuss at its Nov. 8 meeting: changing the terms of their lease.
The landlord and the tenant
According to The Museum School, under the current terms of the lease, if the lease ends earlier than expected, DeKalb County Schools would pay back any money the school had invested into capital improvements.
The Museum School requested that provision in the initial lease negotiated with the district.
“The school had sat empty for five years, and it was honestly uninhabitable,” Kelbaugh said. “It was not a matter of choice. We had to undergo major renovations.”
Barry, the attorney, questioned why the lease agreement is part of the renewal process at all. He said it’s his understanding that conditional charter renewals aren’t allowed in Georgia. School districts can’t change the renewal petition. They can make suggestions. But a district’s school board may only approve or reject a petition, Barry said.
“The way the law is designed, if anything is going to be changed, it can only be changed by agreement, because it is basically a contract,” Barry said.
Lewis, the charter schools expert, said while he is not certain whether the county schools could legally approve a conditional renewal, it’s not a good look for the school district. It gives credence to DeKalb County Schools’ bad reputation within the Georgia’s charter school community, he said.
“While my gut says I don’t think it’s illegal, it is certainly a horrible authorizer practice,” Lewis said. “It is basically putting a gun to the charter’s head and saying, ‘Take it or leave it.’”
It’s unclear why the lease agreement became entangled with The Museum School’s 2021 charter renewal. In its renewal petition filed on Aug. 11, the school asked the county for the deed to the building “due to our desire for permanence.”
Brian Deutsch, an attorney for The Museum School who sits on its advisory council, said school leaders were caught off guard by the changes.
“We are happy to talk to DeKalb County about the lease,” he said. “We never got a copy of this draft lease until after the petition was approved.”
Barry said the lease shouldn’t be a factor in whether the school’s charter gets renewed.
“If it’s a real estate issue, they can handle it with a real estate lawsuit,” he said.
Lewis said the lease being a part of the renewal conditions is “odd, but not shocking.” He notes that state law requires school districts to make unused buildings available to charter schools. That’s been a point of contention among most districts in the past, at the expense of their locally authorized charter schools, he said.
The same state law says the lease is a “separate agreement” from the charter agreement.
A silent third party
The SCSC says it can grant a state charter to a school that already had its charter renewed by a local school board, if the Georgia Board of Education – one of three parties to the agreement – rejects the renewal petition.
State law, and prior communications from the SCSC, cast doubt on that claim.
Since 2013, when the current state charter schools commission was developed, the Georgia BOE has never denied a renewal petition approved by a local board, state BOE Chair Jason Downey said.
Lewis said the state’s involvement in these matters is usually to sign off on whatever the local school board and charter school have decided.
“I don’t think the state board would want to get involved,” Lewis said. “… The desire is not for the state board to be an active participant. I would describe it as a silent third party for broader oversight purposes.”
Meghan Frick, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Education, said that if the Georgia BOE were to vote to deny a renewal petition after a local board of education approved it, it would be up to the State Charter Schools Commission to determine whether that school could get a state charter.
Lauren Holcomb, the Executive Director of the SCSC, confirmed via email that she has advised The Museum School if the Georgia BOE denies the renewal petition, Museum School can become a state charter.
Records show that Museum School already has gone through the vetting process with the SCSC and would be recommended for a state charter if things didn’t work out with DeKalb County.
In a July 7 letter about the school’s application, Holcomb wrote, “As you are aware, DeKalb’s renewal of Museum School’s charter contract would preclude the SCSC from authorizing the school. Accordingly, the petition submitted for Museum School will not be presented to the SCSC for action unless and until DeKalb communicates its non-renewal of the charter contract to Museum School.”
The July 7 letter appears to agree with state law which says, in part, “The [SCSC] shall not act on a petition unless the local board of education in which the school is proposed to be located denies the petition.”
Holcomb later began advising The Museum School that a state BOE denial could be the basis for a state charter. She said a new board rule gives the SCSC discretion here, though the rule she cited doesn’t make that discretion clear. As for what she wrote in the July 7 letter, Holcomb didn’t anticipate a dispute with the DeKalb County School Board about The Museum School’s renewal.
“I failed to reference the State Board of Education in my earlier communications as we did not anticipate a dispute between the school and the local board of education over the renewal terms,” she said. “As I mentioned previously, if the State Board denies the renewal, it has the same effect as a local board denial.”
The Georgia Board of Education hasn’t taken up The Museum School’s renewal yet, but it’s expected to come before the board before the school’s current contract expires.
Barry said in his experience, SCSC has great latitude in determining which schools can become state charters.
“In theory if both of the state Board of Education and state Charter Commission are OK with this interpretation… a judge could decide otherwise but it’s probably OK,” he said.
It’s a dispute the state’s charter school community will be following.
“It brings up a fascinating legal question,” Lewis said.
Kelbaugh said she wasn’t aware that The Museum School could get a state charter under these conditions until Holcomb told her about it. Deutsch, The Museum School’s attorney, said, “I don’t think, frankly, that’s a clear issue of law.”
Kelbaugh thinks that the odds of getting a state charter are low, based on current law.
“Moving to [a state charter] doesn’t appear to be an option for us,” she said. “We want to separate this lease from the renewal piece, so we can move forward.”
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