Saying Missouri was ‘unlawful,’ judge rules Kansas City charter school can stay open

Months after the Missouri Board of Education voted to close a Kansas City charter school, a judge on Wednesday reversed the decision, allowing it to stay open this fall.

The state school board in April unanimously agreed to shut down Genesis on Kansas City’s East Side, affirming a state commission’s decision to revoke the school’s charter because of years of low test scores. It’s an almost unheard of move in Missouri to nullify a school’s charter in the middle of its contract.

Genesis sued the state board and its sponsor, the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, arguing that officials violated the law in closing the K-8 school.

A judge in Cole County Court in Jefferson City sided with the school and reinstated its charter, saying the decision to revoke it was “unlawful and arbitrary.”

Genesis Executive Director Kevin Foster told The Star that the school plans to now stay open next school year, and that he is excited to “start calling families and tell them I intend on serving them in the fall.”

“Ultimately, we’re just happy for the families that we serve that call me every day and ask, ‘Mr. Foster, have you heard anything from the judge yet? Is the school going to be open?’’’ Foster said. “I’m incredibly thankful to the staff and teachers. They can work anywhere right now, but many of them have done their very best to stick with us knowing that we had an opportunity to win and continue to serve.”

A state education department spokeswoman said in an email on Thursday that officials are “currently reviewing the court’s decision.”

In a Thursday statement, charter commission officials said, “Because Genesis School has been a persistently poor performing school, we concluded revoking its charter was best for the children. We were careful and thoughtful about the revocation process. Unfortunately, the Court ruled against the Commission. We respect the judge’s ruling and will abide by it.”

Genesis’ contract with the charter commission runs through June 2025. After that, Foster said, the school would likely need to find a new sponsor to keep operating.

Genesis has served at-risk students since 1975 and is now one of Missouri’s oldest charter schools. It was first sponsored by the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The University of Missouri-Columbia later took that over and in 2020 renewed the charter, but put the school on probation due to its low academic performance.

But MU later lost the authority to sponsor Genesis and two other charter schools. Last year, the state charter commission took over.

A few months after Genesis signed its performance contract with the new sponsor, the commission notified the school it was not meeting standards. In December, the commission notified the school it intended to revoke its charter.

Genesis refused to voluntarily relinquish its charter. In January, the commission held a hearing where dozens of families fought for the school to stay open.

In Wednesday’s ruling, the judge, S. Cotton Walker, said that Genesis was not in breach of its contract, and that the commission violated the contract by failing to provide Genesis with enough notice or calls for corrective action specified in the agreement.

The charter school commission in February voted 6-1 to revoke the school’s charter on June 30, citing 15 years of low academic performance and “broken promises.” In the 2021-2022 school year, for example, the commission said only 13 out of 100 students performed at or above grade level in English and math.

Typically, a sponsor decides whether to renew or revoke a school’s charter at the end of a contract.

Genesis appealed the decision in March, with the backing of dozens of families who said the school effectively serves some of Kansas City’s most at-risk students. School leaders said the state commission’s decision to close the school was unlawful and was “not supported by the data,” arguing that Genesis has seen student performance improve since the COVID-19 pandemic.

But state school board leaders agreed that the school’s educational failings were so severe that it had to close.

Still, ahead of the state board vote, Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven acknowledged, “There are concerns about how the charter commission proceeded with the revocation.” And she said “it is clear” the “process was deficient.”

Officials said state statute allows them to revoke the charter mid-contract if there is clear evidence of low scores in the school’s annual performance report in three of the last four school years or if there’s a violation of the law or the public trust.

The charter commission says Genesis under-performed for each of the three years for which the state could use performance data for accountability. But required state assessments were canceled during the pandemic, and test scores have dropped overall since.

Genesis argued the commission should have relied on the school’s annual performance reports from the last four years. Foster said Genesis has seen student performance improve since the pandemic, as students continued to learn in person. The school says 2021 state assessment data shows growth in both English and math, as well as a 15% reduction in the number of students scoring below basic in English.

The judge agreed with the school’s interpretation, saying that the most recent years’ data should have been used. The ruling said the contract also contains other standards that were not followed, and that the statute does not grant the commission authority to nullify the charter.

“The Commission is required by state statute to adopt a policy related to revocation and it had done so,” the judge wrote. “That policy does not include a statutory requirement that the Commission revoke a charter if the charter school’s academic performance is below that of the resident district (Kansas City Public Schools) for three of the last four years.

“In fact, nothing in the policy allows the staff to recommend revocation based on any specific number of years of academic performance or for any comparison to the resident school district or otherwise.”

The contract allowed the commission to revoke Genesis’ charter if it breached the agreement, failed to meet performance measures or failed to adhere to mandated corrective actions.

The judge ruled the state board of education also acted arbitrarily in closing the school, and that board members “did not consider any data” or evidence before making a decision.