Public hearings and a state agency hearing are scheduled for a proposed change of the recently approved Quest charter middle school from a location on Rahling Road in Chenal Valley to a location several miles east — on Hardin Road off Financial Center Parkway near I-430. The school operator, Responsive Education Solutions, has provided documents under an Arkansas Times Freedom of Information Act request that show the alternate site was under study at the time the state Board of Education approved the school application at the Rahling Road site. Location of the school was an aspect of the board’s debate, but the new location didn’t come up.
On a 6-2 vote Jan. 10, the state Board of Education approved the Quest middle school, to be operated by Texas-based Responsive Education Solutions, which operates or helps manage six other charter schools in Arkansas. The board approval followed favorable action by the Education Department’s charter review panel. Both actions were based on an application that said the school would be in a commercial building at 1815 Rahling Road. The location, in the Pulaski School District, was noted during the discussion in part because a selling point for the school was its attraction to parents of Little Rock elementary school students who weren’t happy with the lack of a middle school near the relatively new Roberts Elementary off Highway 10. Questions were also raised about transportation to the school for students from the inner city who might want to attend. Public bus service would have been difficult, at best. No mention was made that an alternative site was under consideration.
An FOI request I sent to Responsive Education produced documents that show that the company had been attempting for several months to negotiate a better lease arrangement with the owner of the Rahling Road Building, Two Rahling Center LLC. The representative of the building was John Rees of Rees Commercial. The discussion had been underway at least since November, documents show.
On Jan. 6, Curtis Cogburn, manager of real estate development for Responsive Ed, wrote in an e-mail that Reese had been unwilling to negotiate on rent or tenant improvement costs. Robert Davison, chief operating officer for Responsive Ed replied, “Then it looks like we won’t be doing business with him if he cannot be flexible. We need all other options in West Little Rock on the table at this Friday’s [Jan. 10] meeting.” Cogburn responded the same day, Jan. 6, that he had an option at 400 Hardin Road, the site Responsive Ed now proposes to use.
On Jan. 20, 10 days after the state Board approved the school at the Rahling Road site, Gary Newton, a lobbyist paid by the Walton Foundation to lobby for charter school creation in Arkansas and a lead organizer of the Quest school, wrote to Responsive Ed and said of Rees: “In fairness, he’s held this lease open since our application was submitted in September. If another location is at play, need to approach with full understanding of all potential repercussions of move from Rahling.”
No documents reflect what “repercussions” Newton had in mind. I’ve asked him for elaboration, but he’s generally refused to discuss issues with me because of my criticism of the charter school movement. The new site is eight miles east of Roberts Elementary and only two miles west of an existing middle school in the Little Rock district, Henderson. It is seen as a failing school by Newton because of low test scores.
Chuck Cook, CEO of Responsive Ed, remarked on Newton’s concern: “Tell him that they have to raise the additional funds if we don’t relocate to a more cost efficient location.”
The plan to relocate to the Hardin Road location moved ahead.
On Feb. 7, Cogburn wrote Rees about the Rahling property. He said, “RES will not be able to move forward with the 1815 Rahling Road location for a Quest School due to the overall costs involved with this area and location.”
By Feb. 11, Response Ed had an executed purchase agreement with Doyle Rogers Co. of the Sedgwick Building on Hardin Road.
A cost workup on the properties showed an annual lease cost of $618,360 on the Rahling Road property and $367,584 on Hardin Road, for roughly the same amount of space. An analysis showed an even more favorable deal for Responsive Ed in a purchase, almost break even in the first year thanks to income from existing tenants in the building. That is space Quest might ultimately want for expansion. Rees had argued that prices were higher in his part of town.
On Feb. 11, Responsive Ed asked the Education Department charter panel for a March 21 hearing on changing Quest’s site to the Hardin Drive location.
I have asked Responsive Ed officials why they didn’t mention the possibility of a new site at the Jan. 10 hearing. I’ve also asked Newton whether he was aware of the potential change when he testified in behalf of the Quest application Jan. 10. Among the Board of Education members voting for Quest’s application was Diane Zook, Newton’s aunt.
Newton has announced that public hearings will be held on the new location at 6:30 p.m. March 6, 13 and 18 at the Embassy Suites hotel, near the new school location. He notes in a Facebook post on the page of Arkansas Learns, the Walton-financed charter school lobby, that the cost saving will “create the opportunity to direct more of the operating budget to resources which more directly impact the education of the students.” He said the new location also provides more opportunity for growth. The Quest organizers hope to expand into high school grades.