After firing their scandal-plagued management partner, Rev. Eldren Morrison and his colleagues hired a $150,000 school director and voted to open their new charter school next month anyway—with 120 instead of 225 kids.
The vote took place in a recent meeting of the board of the Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA) at the Varick AME Zion Church Parish Hall at 246 Dixwell Ave.
Board members met there as they continue to try to pull together the pieces of a charter school plan after firing the company that was supposed to run it, Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE). BTWA on June 29 fired FUSE, which ran the Jumoke Academy charter schools, in the wake of revelations about FUSE’s CEO’s criminal past and false claims to educational credentials. Hartford, Bridgeport and—as of last Friday—the Jumoke Academy schools themselves, have all cut ties with FUSE amid the unfolding scandal that has become a watershed moment for the state’s charter movement and an issue in the governor’s race.
Morrison, founder of BTWA and pastor of Varick, is now appealing to the state for permission to go forward with the school with a different management firm called Yardstick Learning. The state board of education is set to consider the request at a special meeting at an as-yet-undetermined date.
In preparation for that high-stakes meeting the BTWA board held another emergency meeting last Saturday at 10 a.m. Initially, Morrison said he planned to steam ahead with the original plan to open the school with 225 students and $2.5 million in state money this August. Some state school board members, and education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, suggested he might have to shrink the school or scale it down.
On Saturday, the board appeared to bend to that pressure. Board members voted to downsize the school to 120 students, according to minutes from the meeting. That’s three kindergarten classes and three first grade classes, with 20 students per class.
The proposed downsizing means that some students would be turned away this fall: over 160 students have already signed up, according to Morrison.
As a charter school, BTWA would operate on per-pupil state funding, under monitoring by the state, outside of the local school district. The New Haven district would pay for transportation and services for special-needs students. As of July 2012, state statute requires charter schools to include a designee of the local school board on the charter governance board. Damaris Rau, New Haven’s district executive director of schools, is now representing New Haven public schools on the BTWA board. She attended Saturday’s meeting.
BTWA board members also voted to hire a school director, John Taylor, on a salary of $150,000. The salary is retroactive to July 1. The contract will extend until June 30, 2015 “pending satisfactorily completion of background check,” according to the minutes. After the FUSE scandal, the state started requiring charter schools to conduct background checks of all employees, just as traditional public schools do. Taylor’s “continued employment will be determined by March, 2015 pending satisfactory performance review,” according to the minutes.
Members of the board are: Morrison; Jesse Phillips, his chief of staff at the church; Rau; Belinda Carberry, principal of the Polly T. McCabe Center, a high school for pregnant teens in the New Haven public school system; Chaka Felder-McEntire, a former Hillhouse High administrator who just left to join Highville Charter School; and Kanicka Ingram-Mann, Yamuna Menon, and Nadia Ward.
New Haven schools Superintendent Garth Harries on Wednesday called shrinking the size of the school a “wise step.”
“My sense is the important thing for New Haven families is that all schools are successful, both district and charter,” he said in a statement. “Focusing the first year of Booker T. Washington Academy on a smaller scale seems a wise step by their board of directors to ensure a positive opening.”
Morrison did not return repeated calls requesting comment for this story. The office of state education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who has suggested scaling down the school or delaying its opening date, did not return a request for comment for this story as of press time.