One of the nation’s largest educational-service corporations has been denied an opportunity to operate another charter school in Georgia.
The decision to deny a petition for a new online school involving K12 Inc. comes amid concern about the billion-dollar corporation’s legal dispute with its first major client in the state. For years, K12 ran Georgia Cyber Academy, long the state’s largest public school with about 10,000 enrolled last year.
Georgia Cyber Academy, which operates entirely online, had poor academic performance under K12’s management. It faced closure next year, leading its board to remove most of the contracted services from the corporation. Ongoing legal arbitration has resulted.
The proposed board for Destinations Career Academy, K12’s new venture, appeared to lack such independence, according to both the staff of the State Charter Schools Commission and the majority of the commissioners.
“I have never seen an application as bad and ill-prepared as this one,” Chairman Tom Lewis said Wednesday, before the commission voted 4-2 to deny the petition.
The Destinations board, with the help of K12, had sought approval to serve up to 8,000 students with as much as $160 million in taxpayer money during a five-year charter. The petition said the school would be unique in Georgia by providing a “comprehensive career-focused curriculum” starting in kindergarten. Older students could get hands-on work experience and industry certifications.
In an unprecedented move last month, the commission overruled a staff recommendation to deny the petition, tabling it instead. That gave Destinations a chance to continue the petition this year, something the commission had never allowed in its nearly seven-year history. In July, commissioners said, 10 other proposed schools had withdrawn their petitions rather than face formal denial.
The Destinations board then irritated some commissioners by failing to respond to staff efforts to schedule a new hearing for September.
Finally, on Wednesday, the board sent lawyer and lobbyist Edward Lindsey to salvage the relationship. The former state lawmaker and charter school advocate had co-sponsored the 2012 constitutional amendment that would establish the commission the next year. He said K12 and the Destinations board were in the process of strengthening the board by arranging training and by recruiting three new members.
Lindsey wanted a hearing in October, but the commission’s new executive director, Lauren Holcomb, recommended against that, worrying it would leave too little time to prepare for a fall 2020 opening.
Several commissioners were unhappy that Destinations didn’t send board members to the meeting. Commission Vice Chairman Paul Williams suggested K12, rather than the board, was actually leading the petition.
“It appears like the tail is wagging the dog,” he said. Previously, he had asked who was recruiting the three new Destinations board members. Lindsey had been saying “they” were doing the recruiting, but when asked directly, he clarified that the corporation was involved: K12 was helping to pick the very board members who were supposed to hold it accountable.
Earlier in the hearing, Georgia Cyber Academy leaders described the difficulty of separating the school from K12. As this school year started, students temporarily lost use of their K12 computers, and the school lost access to emails and student records.
K12 once employed all the school leaders, but last year, the board took more control, hiring new school leadership directly.
Holcomb said the school’s charter, which was to end this summer, was extended by a year last winter due to a delay in the renewal process. She said the school would have been ineligible for a new five-year charter due to its academic performance under K12. She took exception to an assertion by an attorney for Destinations who said K12 had worked successfully with Georgia Cyber Academy.
Williams did, too, saying the poor performance led the school’s board to break from K12, precipitating the legal fight. “If they had not made a change, they would not be in business today,” he said.
After the meeting, Lindsey said Destinations plans to return with a new application to open in fall 2021.
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