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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, November 22, 2018 1:00 am

Marshall Academy faces closure

May shutter by year's end; state board weighs viability

NIKI KELLY and ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Charter School Board is considering closing the Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy, possibly by the end of the year.

A dispute with the school's management company could be the last straw for a school that has performed dismally, said Jim Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board.

“It's never a good time to close a school but if we have concerns about the viability of a school we have to weigh the pros and cons of that,” he said. “The circumstances don't even look like they are there or will be there in the foreseeable future to show improvement.”

Turnover, academic failure, an enrollment drop and management concerns since the conditional renewal of the school's charter in mid-2017 have Thurgood Marshall on tenuous ground.

But Principal Shadwaynn Curry said “we're not looking to close. We're not expecting to close.”

The Fort Wayne Urban League opened the school in August 2012 at 2313 S. Hanna St. At some point in 2015 the charter issued by the Indiana Charter School Board was transferred to a new entity – the Fort Wayne Urban League Center for Education, Betley said.

The school also recently moved to a new location at 7910 S. Anthony Blvd.

Initially the school received a failing accountability grade but improved to a C for several years. It received an F in 2015-16 and in 2016-17. The latest A-F scores released this month also gave Thurgood an F.

Betley said state law requires closure if a charter school receives four F's in a row.

“It's sort of more a when not an if on recommending closure,” he said.

Betley warned the seven-member Indiana Charter School Board of problems with Thurgood Marshall at the end of its Nov. 14 meeting. There was no listed agenda item.

He told the group there might need to be an emergency meeting in the next month, saying the school has a management agreement with American Quality Schools to run the school but it wasn't reviewed properly by the state board before being executed.

Michael J. Bakalis, president and CEO of American Quality Schools, said that contract was signed in 2017 to run through June 30, 2020. But now the new board president, Sheila Moore, is claiming it is not a legitimate contract because it was signed by the former Thurgood Marshall board president.

Moore acknowledged there is a discrepancy with AQS. The board wants to renegotiate a contact with the management company that would run through the end of the fiscal year, which is in June, she said.

The board then wants to transition to a self-managed model so there is more local control of the school, Moore said. AQS, which is based in suburban Chicago, hires the teachers and manages the curriculum, she said.

“They basically run the school,” Moore said. “We have very little involvement with what literately happens in the classroom.”

Betley said Moore asked him about whether the Fort Wayne Urban League Center for Education could self-manage the school – a move that could save money. But Bakalis said his company is prepared to sue if the school breaches its contract.

“We want to fulfill the contract. After that they can do what they want,” Bakalis said. “I honestly don't think they have the capability and knowledge to do it themselves.”

AQS receives a 10 percent management fee but he said he offered to reduce that when enrollment came in lower than expected for this year – at 117. Last year the school serving kindergarten through eighth grade had 157 students. He said the offer was rejected.

Mark GiaQuinta, a member of the Indiana Charter School Board, said this is just another example of a poorly run charter school that is giving reason for the board to review the school's continued existence.

“This might be a good time to reevaluate the relationship,” he said. “Frankly the performance has been terrible.”

Betley acknowledged the difficulties with closing a school mid-year and transferring students but said the totality of the circumstances might warrant it.

“We just have concerns across the board,” he said. “Our preference would be the status quo until end of the school year. But we will only do that if we feel the students won't be harmed.”

School leaders are aware of the possibilities, Moore said.

Staff, students, parents and board members are “very committed to the school, and we definitely want to do whatever we can do to make the school successful and obviously keep it open,” she said.

nkelly@jg.net

asloboda@jg.net