Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Violations of state charter contract threaten future of Cirrus Academy

Laura Corley | The Macon Newsroom
Cirrus Academy governing board members conduct a meeting Aug. 29, 2023, via Zoom as staff and members of the public are present in-person.

A State Charter Schools Commissioner told Cirrus Academy leadership last week that its governance issues and charter violations need to be “fixed immediately” if the school is to continue operating.

“There’s a lot of problems here and when we’re not in the room, you’ve got to fix it,” State Charter Schools Commissioner Mike Dudgeon said during a visit to the school meant to inform the coming decision on its charter contract renewal.

For months, the school’s governing board and employees have been unable to settle ongoing disputes about operations that stem, in part, from actions the board approved at an unadvertised meeting in June.

As a result of the ongoing conflict, the school has two lawyers, two chief financial officers, two websites and two budgets.

The school was put on official notice in an Aug. 16 letter from the State Charter School Commission. The letter, addressed to Cirrus governing board chairperson Shirlynn Kelly, says the school is “in violation of its charter contract,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Macon Newsroom.

Cirrus’s governing board is required to submit proof to the State Charter Schools Commission by Sept. 15 showing it lawfully adopted a budget, adopted a school year calendar and has the minimum number of board members its bylaws require for a quorum. It also must submit a written plan “describing the board’s continuing efforts to ensure compliance” with state and federal law.

The four-member board met Tuesday evening to complete some of the overdue business, including a public hearing for the budget it adopted in an unadvertised meeting two months earlier.

Fundamental disagreements resurfaced during the budget presentation in which the board’s budget showed $9.2 million in revenue and $11.1 million in expenditures, a deficit of $1.9 million.

Cirrus Academy Chief Financial Officer Arlene Shuler said the budget on which school has been operating for months reflects a surplus of $72,000.

“It appears to me that you guys are operating separate,” board chairperson Shirlynn Kelly said. “It’s not a good look and it’s not going to work.”

The Role of an Authorizer

State Charter Schools are public schools operated by nonprofit boards and funded by state tax dollars. The governance style differs from traditional public schools, which in Georgia are overseen by  voter-elected school boards.

Though the conflict between Cirrus Academy’s governing board and its employees is impacting the school’s ability to meet the terms in its charter, State Charter Schools Commission Director of Research Katie Manthey said during the recent visit to Cirrus that, “it’s not our role to fix it.”

“It is not our role to mediate between the board and leadership,” Manthey said. “We hold you accountable for legal compliance, we hold you accountable for adherence to the charter contract.”

Charter schools have more autonomy than traditional public schools and can choose who they hire, what classes are offered, how the school day is structured and what the school’s mission is.

The extra freedom is spelled out in charter contracts, which are written agreements nonprofits make with the State Charter Schools Commission. The deal is this: charter schools agree to outperform traditional public schools students would otherwise attend and, in exchange, the state waives certain state rules such as class size and teaching certification requirements.

Problems at Cirrus Academy – academic, financial, governance, operational, organizational – have been persistent at the state charter school since it opened on Pio Nono Avenue in 2016. Shaky financial management, poor academic performance and inconsistent governance are among chronic issues that have hampered the school’s ability to meet all the terms of its charter contract with the state in any single year.

Cirrus, Macon’s first state charter school, is in the final year of a two-year probationary charter with the state commission, which has only ever granted such an abbreviated term to one other school.

As Cirrus Academy plans to apply for a five-year charter contract renewal in November, its recent governance issues do little to help its case for why it should be renewed.

The school’s long history of noncompliance and underperformance apparently has not weighed heavily on the State Charter Schools Commission’s decisions in recent years to renew its charter contracts.

The State Charter Schools Commission was flagged as “high risk” in 2019 because of a financial deficit, according to records obtained from the state. As a result of that designation, the school was required to submit monthly financial reports to the commission for a couple years.

In 2020, Cirrus Education Group Inc., the nonprofit that operates Cirrus Academy, defaulted on $11.3 million in bonds issued to it by the Public Finance Authority of Wisconsin. The bonds were used to finance the purchase of the building on Pio Nono Avenue. The school currently pays about $60,000 monthly, roughly $500,000 yearly, in mortgage-like payments to Rosemawr Management investment firm for ownership of its campus.

The end of Cirrus’s initial five-year contract with the state occurred in 2021 as the pandemic was still impacting in-person gatherings. The State Charter School Commission unilaterally extended charters expiring in 2021 for an additional year due to the pandemic.

In 2022, State Charter Schools Commission staff recommended charter nonrenewal for Cirrus.

State records show the commission “strongly considered” the staff’s recommendation but ultimately voted to grant Cirrus an extraordinary charter term extension, “because the students at Cirrus would return to persistently low-performing schools,” according to Lauren Holcomb, the former executive director for the State Charter Schools Commission.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email [email protected]

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