Though they aren’t explicitly endorsing the charter school option, some members of the Mobile County school board are looking to take the steps necessary to become the authorizing body for future charter schools in the Mobile County Public School System geographical region.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but operated by an independent, nonprofit organization bound by a contract outlining a specific set of academic goals or an emphasis on a specific student population.

In other states over the years, charter schools have been created with varying degrees of success. In Alabama, the idea has been met with hesitation and proven to be a hot-button political issue at times.

Opposition is generally based in a funding formula that withdraws financial support from traditional public schools for each student that opts to enroll in a charter program. However, that debate appears to be settled, and with the oversight of a charter school law passed by state legislators earlier this year, Alabama could see its first charter schools open as early as next fall.

Those schools cannot exist, however, unless their respective charters are approved by an “authorizer,” which identifies the needs of local students and may approve or deny the charters based on their ability to meet those needs.

Under Alabama’s law, each existing school board is given the option to become an authorizer for its respective geographical area, provided it elects to do so before a Sept. 1, 2015, deadline.

Like many others, the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) and its board have spent the past couple of months weighing its options, but during a special meeting July 8, the majority of the five-member board seemed to be closer to making a decision. At least one member has already urged the board to add an agenda item to its regular meeting July 27 to get the process started.

“Initially, I was totally against [charter schools]. I’m still against it, but we have a fiduciary responsibility to uphold the law in the state of Alabama,” Commissioner Dr. Reginald Crenshaw said. “We either pass that onto the state, where they could just rubber stamp it, or we take part in it.”

Crenshaw referenced the Alabama Charter School Commission, a state body established to review charter school applications in lieu of a willing authorizer at the local level. The state commission will also be able to hear appeals for schools whose proposed charter is rejected by a local authorizer.

Like Crenshaw, MCPSS board member Robert Battles believes charter schools are coming whether or not the local board is willing to authorize them. Battles and Dr. William Foster, another board member, agreed it would be in the system’s best interest to have a say in which schools are allowed to operate within their district.

Superintendent Martha Peek offered some more detail:

“The focus of the charter school bill is at-risk students. These are economically disadvantaged students, students who have limited English proficiency and those who are at risk of dropping out or who don’t meet standards of academic proficiency,” Peek said. “If the Mobile County Public School System becomes an authorizer, we would define what at-risk population has the greatest need and which population we would address.”

Those at-risk students would be identified through a request for proposal (RFP), but Peek said the system is already addressing a lot of those needs through special programs like STAR Academy and ESL courses.

She went on to say that parents “need to look very carefully at what is already offered,” adding that there are already several choices for parents in Mobile County — both public and private.

Until 2020, a statewide limit of 10 charter school authorizations per year will be in effect, but that doesn’t apply to “conversion” charter schools, which use existing public facilities. As part of the bill, school systems were required to identify any school underpopulated by 60 percent or more, which could potentially be used as conversion charters. MCPSS identified three such schools — Belsaw/Mt. Vernon K-5 School, the Mobile County Training School and Mae Eanes Middle School. However, Peek made it clear a charter program cannot take over any facility without the system’s approval, whether or not they are the authorizer.

Throughout the meeting, three of the board’s five members vocalized some sort of support for becoming the authorizer in the area. The remaining members — Douglas Harwell and Don Stringfellow — never objected to the idea, but did say they wanted more information on what putting together an RFP and monitoring a charter program would cost the system.

“I think in everything we do, we should count the costs,” Harwell said, asking the central office to come up with an estimated budget for taking on the role of authorizer. Crenshaw said the costs “shouldn’t be a factor,” but did share Harwell’s interest.

An estimated budget could be presented to the board as early as next week. Though a percentage of a charter school’s per-pupil expenditures are allocated to authorizers to cover the cost of oversight, Peek said that funding “may not be sufficient.”

Though she said there are positives, Peek reminded the board a few times that taking on the role of authorizer would require extensive board resources, extensive monitoring and dedicated personnel in order to provide adequate oversight.

“If we do this, we’re going to do it with 100 percent fidelity,” she said. “We owe that to our students, because we want to know those students that go into a charter school are going to be getting a quality education.”

For now, it’s unclear how many charter schools may attempt to start within the district, but Peek said when these “new plans and ideas come up” there’s generally a “target on Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery area schools” because of their large student populations.  

Peek said she doesn’t know whether that was the case with the charter school bill, but at least two board members — Battles and Crenshaw — said they have already been approached by organizations potentially interested in starting charter programs in the Mobile area.