CHECK THAT CHARTER

The city school board files suit to block the opening of St. Louis' first charter school

CHECK THAT CHARTER: Just a week after it was revealed that the chief executive officer of the city's only approved charter school had been convicted of a felony — conspiring to steal postal money orders — 13 years ago, the city school board filed suit to block the opening of that charter school. That's quite efficient, considering that this is the same school district that moves like molasses in January when test scores are among the lowest in the state and more students drop out than take the ACT at some high schools.

Believe it — if the charter school had Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois on its board of directors, the school board still would have filed suit to block its opening. The new charter school with the unwieldy name — the African-American Rite of Passage Learning and Education Institute ­ Arthur J. Kennedy Skills — just happened to be first in line and provided an easy target as a result of its own PR nightmare. No matter how rehabilitated or converted to righteousness its CEO, Lamar Basil Beyah, is, the words "felon" and "school CEO" don't flow well together in any sentence.

Ken Brostron, attorney for the city schools, says that basic issues about the way charter schools are set up in Missouri prompted the suit, not any personal issues with Beyah. The city is basing part of its suit on procedural issues, such as how the University of Missouri-St. Louis denied, then approved the charter much later, but the intent of the suit is to challenge the charter bill. Because charter schools draw public funds that would have gone to the district on a per-pupil basis, money is also an issue.

"We had constitutional issues we were going to assert, irrespective of which one was approved. I was waiting for one to get approved," says Brostron.

A hearing is planned for Aug. 19 in Cole County, where the lawsuit was filed because one of its targets is the Missouri Board of Education, based in Jefferson City. All the uncertainty may delay the opening of the school, located at 4300 Goodfellow, but Beyah vows that the school will open, whether it's on time in September or later, in October. The eventual plan for the school, which has registered 424 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, is a year-round schedule.

Beyah is baffled that a school district that allowed him to participate in a mentor program would turn on him and criticize him for his past. "I was chosen and accepted by the public schools to come in, and they had full knowledge of my past," says Beyah. "That was the reason, so I could be more credible to the children." Leonardo Drisdel, a spokesman for the charter school, says Beyah was permitted to be a part of the mentor program under the premise, "Who else would the children listen to other than someone who already has made some mistakes and who's overcome them?"

Meanwhile, across the state, 17 charter schools have been approved in Kansas City, with about 12 expected to open this fall. Laura Friedman of the Charter Schools Information Center, based in Clayton, thinks there is no mystery as to why just one of the two districts where charter schools are allowed has much activity. In Kansas City, the superintendent was bought out of his contract and only recently replaced. In St. Louis, superintendent Cleveland Hammonds has been an outspoken opponent of charter schools and made no secret that the district would sue to block any such school from opening.

"When you're told if you submit a charter, you'll be sued, that is a chilling effect," says Friedman. "There's no question but that you're going to back off at that point, and other people have gotten the same reaction. It's created a hostile environment for charter schools."

 
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