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Published in Print: October 27, 1999, as Charter School Opening Must Wait Till Next Year

Charter School Opening Must Wait Till Next Year

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A Michigan charter school that expected to enroll more than 500 students this fall will not open until next year because a federal judge has blocked its state aid.

Organizers of the Benton Harbor Charter School sought to open the K-5 school in the Benton Harbor Area School District, which operates under a 1981 federal desegregation order.

State education officials had said the school would need court approval to receive roughly $5,600 per student in state aid because any new schools in the 6,000-student, predominantly African-American district could affect the district's ability to abide by the desegregation order. The state is a defendant in the desegregation case.

A federal district court judge approved state school aid for the school in July, but reversed his decision this month after the school failed to open on time.

A Rock and a Hard Place

Questions surrounding desegregation and charter schools have surfaced in other states, such as Louisiana. A congressional panel recently held an oversight hearing on the issue. ("Justice Dept. Accused of Obstructing Charter Schools," Oct. 20, 1999.)

Although Ferris State University in Big Rapids granted the Benton Harbor school its charter in April, the school did not receive court approval for state aid until the middle of July.

That timing pushed back renovations to the school facilities and delayed the planned Sept. 9 opening to what could have been as late as Nov. 15, said Lisa O'Brien, a spokeswoman for Advantage Schools Inc., a Boston-based for-profit company hired to manage the school.

"It was a real Catch-22," Ms. O'Brien said. "We couldn't responsibly begin investing in the building until we had the judge's approval to open."

Attempts to find temporary facilities failed after the school ran into problems securing necessary permits from state regulators, she added.

When the school did not open on time, the Benton Harbor district asked U.S. Senior District Judge Douglas W. Hillman in Grand Rapids to withhold the charter school's state aid for the year.

The late school opening would adversely affect students, parents, and teachers in the district, district lawyer John Tully argued.

The charter school was expected to draw most of its students from the Benton Harbor district. When the charter school did not open on time, most students returned to the district, Mr. Tully said.

On Oct. 8, the judge approved the district's request, saying the delay could not only disrupt students' educations, but also hinder district planning for facilities, budget, busing, and staff and student assignment.

In his ruling, the judge noted that the school could open next fall without filing a new petition. Advantage officials announced Oct. 15 that they would postpone opening the school until next fall.

"We are committed emotionally and financially--but Judge Hillman has asserted his authority over the charter school, and as strongly as we disagree with his decision, we must respect it. We are fully confident that we will open next year," said Steven F. Wilson, the founder and chief executive officer of Advantage Schools, which runs 16 schools in eight states and the District of Columbia.

Vol. 19, Issue 9, Page 5

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