Law & Courts

Missouri High Court to Hear Charter Dispute

By John Gehring — September 21, 2004 4 min read
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The fate of the largest charter school in Kansas City, Mo., has reached the state’s highest court, as an unusual legal battle continues between the school and its sponsoring district.

At the heart of the case, scheduled to be heard this week by the Missouri Supreme Court, is whether the 30,000-student Kansas City school district was justified in seeking to end its four-year sponsorship of the Westport Community Charter School because of alleged financial, academic, and managerial problems.

A district review of the school this past spring cited, among other problems, a poor system for financial record-keeping and a poorly trained business office.

District leaders also argue that the charter school lacks an improvement plan, and that students would be better off if they were absorbed back into the district’s system of traditional schools. Charter schools are independent public schools that operate free from many district regulations.

The wrangling began in April, when the Kansas City school board voted not to renew its sponsorship of Westport, which enrolls 1,200 students in grades 6-12. Westport is the only charter school in Kansas City sponsored by the district.

Charter school officials sued the district, claiming that allegations of mismanagement were unproven and that the district hadn’t given Westport a chance to defend itself in a hearing.

A circuit court judge ruled in the charter school’s favor in June. But when the state Court of Appeals reversed that decision, a district locksmith entered the charter school on Aug. 19, in the middle of the night, to begin taking back the building.

The district owns the building that the charter school uses rent-free. Charter school officials showed up at the school early the next morning to find themselves locked out.

But members of Westport’s board of directors quickly sought and won an emergency injunction from the state supreme court, which ordered the district out of the charter school. The court agreed to hear arguments from both parties Sept. 8.

Allegations of Damage

The new school year began for Westport students on Aug. 23, despite more than $30,000 worth of alleged damage that charter school leaders claim the district caused when workers cut phone lines and made other physical changes in the school.

“There was a lot of damage done to the school,” said Curtis Masood, the vice president of the charter school’s board, who has called the legal dispute with the district a “bloody slugfest.”

“There is a lot of frustration and confusion about why the district is doing this,” Mr. Masood said.

Maurice Watson, a lawyer for the Kansas City schools, said the district was cooperating with Westport’s investigation of alleged damage at the school.

“At this point, the district sees further public conflict with Westport as an unnecessary and counterproductive distraction for students and staff at Westport,” he said.

But in an “open letter to the community,” posted on the district’s Web site on Aug. 27, Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr. addressed the controversy.

“While the district has been forced to respond to the suit brought against it by Westport, the district has refrained from making false, personal, and malicious statements about Westport’s board and administrators,” the superintendent wrote.

“That this conflict, now in the courts,” he continued, “has become hostile is deeply disturbing. . Despite the difficulties that have ensued, I continue to believe the district is in the best position to improve the academic achievement of students at Westport.”

Charter school officials and the sponsors of Kansas City’s 17 other charter schools, with a total of 6,667 students, are watching the legal battle closely.

The case marks the first time in Missouri that a charter school board has sued its sponsor. Under state law, charter schools are allowed in the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts. Those districts—along with community colleges and four-year public colleges or universities—have the authority to sponsor charter schools.

A sponsor is responsible for overseeing the performance of a charter school, but does not make daily decisions about the school’s operations.

Charter school advocates such as Dave Camden, who directs the Missouri Charter School Information Center in St. Louis and helped craft the 1998 state charter school law, said most charter schools lack high-quality oversight.

“The majority of sponsors in the state have not done a good job monitoring their schools,” Mr. Camden said. “The fear now is that other sponsors will jump on the bandwagon and say this is our chance to get out.”

There is plenty of blame to go around in the fight between Westport and the Kansas City district, Mr. Camden added.

“What’s really unfortunate in this case is both the charter and the sponsor have both acted in a terrible fashion,” he said. “The school district just really didn’t know how to handle this, and at the same time, the charter board said, ‘That’s fine, we don’t want any oversight, and we will just run as far as we can with the ball before someone tackles us.’ ”

Preston C. Green III, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, said the Kansas City case raises an easily overlooked, but important, technical issue.

Kansas City officials have argued that they are not renewing, rather than revoking, its sponsorship of Westport. While there are guidelines under Missouri law for revoking a charter, there are no guidelines for not renewing a sponsorship. The fine distinction has become part of the complicated legal dispute in Kansas City.

“There are ways that the state legislature could fix this problem,” said Mr. Green. “The legislature could define what the standards are for renewal. Policymakers in the states should go back and check their statutes to make sure they have standards for revocation and renewal.”

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