Application released for Mississippi charter schools

djournal-education-newsBy Jeff Amy

Associated Press

JACKSON – Groups seeking to establish a charter school in Mississippi have until March 14 to submit their applications, though officials may continue to fine-tune the application forms.

The Charter School Authorizer Board agreed earlier this month to release its application. But members also agreed to seek a second round of public comments through the state rule-making process, which could lead to changes to the application form.

Board Chairman Tommie Cardin, a lawyer who lives in Clinton, said he expects any revisions to be minor.

“Any changes that are made, I think applicants could respond to easily,” he said.

Applicants must submit a letter of intent by Jan. 22. The board plans to act by June 16 and agree to five-year contracts with charter operators by June 27. The board can approve up to 15 charters per year, but far fewer could come in the first application cycle.

The board was waiting on the Department of Finance and Administration for permission to set up a bank account, but Cardin and DFA spokeswoman Sherri Hilton said that permission was granted Tuesday.

The lack of a bank account was holding up a donation from businessman and philanthropist Jim Barksdale. His brother Claiborne Barksdale confirmed to The Associated Press that the gift is pending. Jim Barksdale could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday, and Cardin declined to comment.

The Ethics Commission issued an opinion Oct. 11 that it’s legal for a private citizen to donate to a state board even if a spouse of a board member gets money from a group funded by the donor.

The opinion doesn’t name anyone, but posits a relationship similar to that between Barksdale and the charter board. Charter board member Krystal Cormack is married to Michael Cormack, the principal at Quitman County Elementary in Lambert. The Barksdale Reading Institute has an agreement with the state to pay Michael Cormack’s salary as part of a school-improvement effort.

A law passed earlier this year expands authority to create charter schools — public schools run by private groups that meet certain standards. Local schools boards in districts rated A, B and C under the state’s A-to-F system would get vetoes over charter schools. Students would not be allowed to cross district lines to attend a charter school in another district.

Money is a key issue as the board moves ahead with efforts to hire an executive director or get help from a consultant. Lawmakers didn’t appropriate any cash, envisioning that donors would pay startup costs. The board will collect a fee of 3 percent of state aid from schools once they open, but that might not happen until August 2015.

Board members plan to seek applications for an executive director or consultants at their December meeting, Cardin said. The law requires the executive director be a lawyer licensed in Mississippi, which board members have said is a potential obstacle. But Cardin said it’s possible some good applicants could cross that hurdle.

“We all basically decided we should put it out and see what’s there,” he said.

Still, it’s likely board members will have to handle part of the application process without a paid staff.