Split illustrates management disputes charter schools can face

Classes carried on as usual last week at Wesley International Academy charter school in Grant Park, as if, behind the scenes, there had been no management shake-up.

But there had been: For the first time in five years, the school was on its own with a principal hired by its governing board instead of the company it had broken ties with, Arlington, Va.-based Imagine Schools Inc., a for-profit management firm that once charged Wesley $1.1 million in rent per year.

Wesley, a k-8 International Baccalaureate World School with 645 students, is the third Georgia charter school since 2010 to sever ties with Imagine over disputes ranging from management fees to disagreement over how to run the schools. Two others closed when their charters were not renewed by local school boards.

Imagine’s troubles illustrate the management disputes charter schools can face compared to traditional public schools at a time when voters are deciding in November whether to ensure the state’s power to authorize charters without local school board approval.

Wesley and at least one other Imagine school in Georgia had disagreements over the management fees the company was charging. Wesley’s board also complained that it didn’t have the final say over the hiring of teachers and principals, though Imagine spokeswoman Lori Waters said the company always sought input from the school’s board on hiring.

Wesley’s board also felt Imagine was charging too much for rent. (After negotiations between the school and Imagine and a change in state regulations, the rent was reduced to $540,000 a year.) However, Waters said the lease’s “rates were driven by the economic costs before” the real estate market crashed in 2008.

Wesley’s fight to free itself from the management contract with Imagine took three years, said Kamau Bobb, the chairman of the Wesley governing board. Wesley engaged officials from the Georgia Department of Education, who last year rewrote regulations to give boards more autonomy and to untangle the financial agreements between charter schools and management companies.

“Before the change, management companies locked charter schools into long-term, high-cost leases, well above market value, and tied continued use of the school building to renewal of the management agreement,” said Louis J. Erste, Charter Schools Division director for the Georgia Department of Education. “Such arrangements are no longer tolerated.”

Imagine, which no longer has a charter school in Georgia, still manages 71 schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia and often also leases the buildings to the schools. Without Imagine, there are about a half-dozen for-profit companies working with charter schools in Georgia.

The new regulations in Georgia enabled Wesley to renegotiate its lease agreement with Imagine, which still owns the property it spent $12 million to renovate in 2007, the year the school opened. Bobb said there’s a sense of relief: “We felt hostage to Imagine.” Still, there are plenty of challenges ahead.

Atlanta Public Schools last year granted Wesley a one-year renewal of its charter to give the school time to transition from Imagine management. On Friday, Wesley met its deadline to apply for a five-year renewal of its charter.

APS Director of Innovation Allen Mueller said the APS board had misgivings about Wesley under Imagine management, including the amount of money that was not going into the classroom, plus “the [academic] performance was not overwhelming.”

The school’s academic performance improved in the fifth year, achieving “adequate yearly progress.” The school’s International Baccalaureate curriculum, which emphasizes international studies, including Mandarin Chinese (it has six Chinese language teachers), was granted IB World School status this year. All 87 Wesley students who took the Youth Chinese Test this year passed (10 with perfect scores), which is twice as many as passed the YCT last year.

According to a 2011 audit, the school got about $6.2 million a year in state funds passed through Atlanta Public Schools, about $150,000 in federal funds, and approximately $400,000 in revenue from fundraising, summer camp, food service fees, and other sources. Bobb said that money went directly to Imagine, which then distributed it back to the school, after charging a 12 percent management fee and expenses.

Waters, the Imagine spokeswoman, portrayed the split with Wesley and two other charter schools, in Kennesaw and Smyrna, as a disagreement over direction. She said the two Imagine schools whose charters were not renewed — in Marietta and Mableton — were the victims of a political clash with the local school boards.

Cobb County school board member Alison Bartlett said last week the vote to deny Imagine Mableton’s charter renewal had nothing to do with politics. The board approved Smyrna, said Bartlett, after it had severed ties with Imagine, because the school had a “fully intact governing board,” which Mableton did not.

With Imagine Mableton closing, more than 500 students transferred to new schools this year. Three of them were Jeff Shirley’s children. Last month, they enrolled in Griffin Middle and Nickajack Elementary schools in Cobb. For all the tumult Imagine Mableton went through last year, it didn’t seem to faze his children, Shirley said.

“When I asked them do they like going to school, they say, ‘Yes,’” he said. “When I asked them do they miss Imagine, they say, ‘Yes, but we like where we are now.’”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.