Charter School Offers to Take Over High School – with Conditions

February 22, 2011; Source: American-Statesman | The Austin, Texas Eastside Memorial High School isn't doing particularly well. So much so that the Austin public school district is considering closing the campus. Now, a neighboring charter school, the East Austin College Prep Academy, is pitching to take over the high school and convert it to a 6th through 12th grade college prep academy – stirring emotions on both sides of the charter school debate.

The Prep proposal would also include provisions for adult education, after-school programs, mental health care services, and drug, violence, and pregnancy prevention programs. The quid pro quos are pretty simple. The prep school operator, the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs, wants the entire Eastside campus for a rent of $1 a year for a lease term of 99 years.

Should the charter school decide that it has other commercially profitable uses for parts of the facility, that nominal rent payment would make any income from subleasing parts of the facility pure gravy. The other condition is just as simple: complete operating autonomy from the school district. "There are things we just can't do without that kind of autonomy," the Southwest Key director told the American-Statesman.

It's not clear exactly what the charter operator wants to do that the district might get in the way of, but the school district in the past hasn't been warm to that kind of partnership. Southwest Key had pitched a Promise Neighborhoods application in partnership with the district, but the district chose another, perhaps somewhat more collaborative partner. Austin's application for Promise Neighborhoods planning money was not funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Southwest Key thinks that it is now getting more support for taking over Eastside than it did when it first proposed the takeover, but representatives of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) were vocally underwhelmed by the Southwest Key idea. There are undoubtedly problems at Eastside Memorial, but perhaps Southwest Key might want to remember that partnership rarely succeeds when one putative partner tells the other, get the heck out of the way.—Rick Cohen