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Public weighs in on whether to open Kentucky’s first charter school

 Madison County Schools parent Martina Jackson opposed the opening of LaFontaine Charter School at a hearing in December.
Jess Clark
Madison County Schools parent Martina Jackson opposed the opening of LaFontaine Charter School at a hearing in December.

The Madison County Board of Education held a public hearing Tuesday night on a proposal to open the state’s first charter school there.

More than a hundred parents, teachers, students and activists assembled at the Madison County Board of Education building in Richmond Tuesday night to share their thoughts on whether their community should allow a local private school to start collecting public funding and convert into a charter school — the very first in Kentucky’s history.

If approved by the Madison County Board of Education, LaFontaine Preparatory School (LPS) would become LaFontaine Charter School next fall.

Charter schools exist in all but six U.S. states. Unlike traditional public schools, charters are not run by local elected boards of education. They are run by private boards or private companies, and collect taxpayer funds, usually a similar amount per student as is spent in the traditional public schools. Families do not pay tuition to attend charter schools.

Charter schools have to abide by far fewer government regulations than traditional public schools, but they have more oversight than private schools.

Speaking before the large audience gathered Tuesday night in the boardroom, Gus LaFontaine said since founding LPS in 2011 in Richmond, he’s had his eye on turning it into a charter.

“There's one thing that I want to fix about it — I want to remove the barrier of tuition from it,” he said at the hearing,, becoming visibly emotional. “Then any family that would like to participate will be free to do so at no cost to them. That's been my dream for 12 years.”

Dozens of current tuition-paying parents of LPS raved about the school for its small class sizes, caring teachers and dedication to serving students with disabilities. Tuition at LPS costs $6,540 a year, plus an enrollment fee of $400.

LPS parent Amanda Hager said after switching her daughter Autumn from public school to LaFontaine Preparatory, “she became the best version of herself.”

“I saw a total transformation in her educational horizon through teaching styles I didn't realize existed,” she said. She said she wants that for families of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Gus LaFontaine (center in the white shirt) listens with supporters during a public hearing on whether he should be allowed to convert his private school into the state's first charter school.
Jess Clark
Gus LaFontaine (center in the white shirt) listens with supporters during a public hearing on whether he should be allowed to convert his private school into the state's first charter school.

But many opponents, including teachers and parents in Madison County Schools, say they don’t want their schools’ budgets to suffer for the benefit of charter school students.

“I'm so thrilled that you guys have LPS taking care of your kids the way it needs to be taken care of,” Madison County Schools parent Shad Stewart said. “But I can’t get behind taking money out of my kid’s classroom for it.”

Under a new state law, Madison County Schools would have to send more than $6 million a year to LaFontaine Charter School, if the board approves the application.

Stewart said that would mean while LaFontaine’s class sizes stay small, class sizes would go up for children who don’t get into LaFontaine.

In LaFontaine’s application materials, the proposed school pledged to keep class sizes 20% smaller than those allowed in the public school system.

“This innovation is likely to improve student learning and achievement from historically low-performing groups and increase educational opportunities— especially those at risk of academic failure—by using a different, high quality model of schooling,” the charter application reads.

LaFontaine also pledges to pay teachers 20% more than they would make in the Madison County school system and give students 20% more instructional time.

The school would need to serve 406 students in its first year to be financially stable, according to the application. If more students want to enroll than the school can accommodate, the school would use a lottery system to determine who gets in. According to the application, the charter plans for many current tuition-paying families at LPS to become charter school students. However, LaFontaine clarified that they will have to go through the lottery process too — meaning they wouldn’t be guaranteed a spot.

Some students would be guaranteed placement, including children and grandchildren of LaFontaine board members, children of current employees. Starting in the second year, siblings of LaFontaine Charter School students would be given priority.

In the application, LaFontaine Charter School leaders say they only plan to serve students within Madison County during the first year.

“However, upon authorization and formation of [the school], this policy may be reconsidered by the LaFontaine Charter School board,” the application reads.

That worried Madison County parent Todd Blevins.

“There's the distinct possibility that Madison County taxpayer dollars could go to non-Madison County students, and I just don't see how that's right,” Blevins said.

Meanwhile LPS parent Rebecca Brown said she wanted LPS to become a charter school so that her tax dollars went toward her own child’s education.

“I'm very emotional because I have struggled for seven years to pay for my son's education,” she said. “We are simply asking that our taxpayer dollars go to where our student goes or our child goes.”

The meeting ended after two hours of passionate and respectful debate.

Madison County Board of Education Chair Beth Brock wouldn’t say if she felt swayed one way or another by the public debate.

“It's just a listening time. And that's where we stand right now. We're just taking information and putting that all into account,” she said.

A committee of school district administrators and board members is meeting in mid-December for an in-depth review of the application. The Madison County Board of Education will vote on whether to approve the application by the end of the year.

If approved, LaFontaine Charter School would plan to open to grades K-8 in the fall of 2024.

However, an ongoing lawsuit could impact LaFontaine’s plans to move forward, if it does receive approval. A 2022 law that provides the funding mechanism for charter schools is facing a legal challenge. Gus LaFontaine is a party in the case.

Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd heard oral arguments in June, but has not yet issued a ruling.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

Copyright 2023 Louisville Public Media. To see more, visit Louisville Public Media.

Jess is LPM's Education and Learning Reporter. Jess has reported on K-12 education for public radio audiences for the past five years, from the swamps of Southeast Louisiana at WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio, to the mountains of North Carolina at WUNC in Chapel Hill. Her stories have aired on national programs and podcasts, including NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition, Here & Now and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. A Louisville native, Jess has her bachelor's degree from Centre College, and her masters in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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