OKC district seeks to standardize contracts
John Rex Charter Elementary School, which doesn't pay rent and receives tens of thousands in financial assistance from Oklahoma City Public Schools, is pushing back against a plan by the district to start collecting those fees.
John Rex Head of School Joe Pierce warned that the district should use "extreme caution when proposing fundamental changes which threaten our successful model."
"Like all other charter schools, our legal team must carefully review any proposal that would dramatically jeopardize our mission, alter the roles or agreements, and increase costs," Pierce said in a statement.
The Oklahoma City district is proposing standardized lease agreements for all charters that occupy OKCPS-owned facilities, citing a need to treat all schools equitably. John Rex in downtown Oklahoma City and KIPP Reach Academy, a charter middle school in northeast Oklahoma City, do not pay rent, while other charter school rents range between $41 and $612.98 each month, according to data provided by the district.
Under a district proposal, charter schools, including Santa Fe South, Harding Charter Preparatory School and Harding Fine Arts Academy, would be required to pay $20 per student per year for the first five years of a new contract, an amount that would increase to $30 in years six through 10. Each school would be responsible for paying its own insurance along with all maintenance and utility costs.
Additionally, the district plans to increase its administrative fee for all charters from 3% to 5% beginning with the 2022-23 school year, after each has participated in the "contract renewal process," Superintendent Sean McDaniel stated in a letter to charter school leaders in April.
Launched in 2014, John Rex currently serves about 600 children in prekindergarten through sixth grade in a facility built through the city's MAPS for Kids sales tax program.
The district paid nearly $121,000 in maintenance and utility fees for John Rex during the 2017-18 school year, data shows. By comparison, the district paid $5,535 to cover similar costs for Stanley Hupfeld Academy at Western Village, $755.29 for Seeworth Academy, $453.49 at Harding Charter Prep and $417 at Santa Fe South Middle School.
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Board members have told The Oklahoman they want to treat charter schools fairly, while ensuring the district is not supplementing charter schools at the expense of other schools.
In a separate letter to Pierce, McDaniel outlined a similar process for John Rex, a school founded and governed by the Oklahoma City district but sponsored by the University of Oklahoma.
As the sponsor of John Rex, OU's College of Education collects a 3% administrative fee, which was about $86,000 in fiscal year 2019. The district would like to become the school’s sponsor and collect that fee.
"There is no reason to continue that and send the management fee to the university," said Mark Mann, a school board member who chairs the panel's charter committee.
Mann described the existing relationship between the district and John Rex as a "good experiment that served its purpose."
"I don’t know why the district needs to be involved in operating a charter school, particularly when they’ve demonstrated that they do a fine job of it on their own," he said.
In the letter to Pierce, McDaniel said John Rex has "truly begun to achieve its founders' vision of a sought-after, diverse school serving our downtown Oklahoma City community."
"We believe this shift will further that goal by clarifying the separation of duties between OKCPS and the John Rex board, documenting responsibilities related to facilities, ensuring our state funding is serving OKCPS students, and removing any confusion that complicates our work together," McDaniel’s stated.
Under a new arrangement between John Rex and the Oklahoma City school system, the district no longer would appoint school board members to sit on the 17-member John Rex board that governs and operates the school. Currently, only board member Rebecca Budd serves on the John Rex panel. Three others — Carrie Coppernoll Jacobs, Ruth Veales and Jace Kirk — have stepped down in the past 18 months.
"To continue to be active in the day-to-day management of a school that arguably has no issues just doesn't make sense," Mann said. "We have other places that this board and the district need to focus its attention on, and it's not on a school that we already know is successful and has a good leadership structure in place."
Phil Horning, a former Oklahoma City School Board member who chairs the John Rex board, said John Rex is "unique" because it is the only charter not sponsored by the district.
"The district founded Rex and holds the charter," he said. "It should not be treated the same as all of the sponsored charter schools.
"The public-private partnership that created John Rex is one of the most successful undertakings that the district did in my eight years on the school board. I would rather that the district embraced that success and not change it."
McDaniel has told The Oklahoman the district is "committed to working together and maintaining a strong relationship with our OKCPS-sponsored charter schools."
"As our charter program has grown, each school has been treated differently over time by different administrations," he said. "With open lines of communication and transparency, we will, in the coming years, bring consistency and fairness to the way we treat our charter schools in alignment with our district's focus on equity and the Oklahoma statutes governing charter schools."