Christine Stuart photo
Pastor Eldren Morrison, John Taylor, and Reginald Mayo make their pitch for Booker T. Washington Academy to state Board of Education (Christine Stuart photo)

The state Board of Education expressed skepticism Monday that a new charter school would be able to get up and running before the start of the school year, but nevertheless they unanimously approved the revised plan.

Booker T. Washington Academy of New Haven submitted a revised proposal to the state Board of Education in July after scrambling to find a new management team to run the school. The state Board of Education met Monday to decide whether the new charter school, led by John Taylor, should open the school in September.

The approval of the state board came with some conditions and several hours of discussion about whether it would be able to raise the $1 million in private funds and find additional students to attend.

While school officials were hesitant to discuss their funding challenges, they said they’ve already received commitments for $150,000 and there’s $500,000 they will be able to raise from foundations as soon as they get the approval they need to open the school in September.

“The foundations are waiting for us to get through this process and they’ll come to the table as well,” Taylor said. “Then as a contingency we’ve talked to a foundation about doing a zero interest loan to cover anything we may come up short.”

At the moment, the school has recruited 74 students, but its budget has room for up to 120 students in its inaugural year. It had originally planned to serve 225 students, but scaled back the proposal after it severed its relationship with Family Urban Schools of Excellence.

Taylor explained that a lot of parents are waiting for the outcome of the school board’s meeting to commit to attend the school.

“It’s been very challenging getting the numbers that we need right now until they know that the school is actually going to happen,” Taylor said.

However, he expressed confidence they would reach that goal by canvassing the community and sending out direct mail.

The school board also recommended a three-year term for the charter, instead of the customary five years. It suggested as part of the certification that all school employees and board members undergo a background check.

The school’s founder, Pastor Eldren Morrison, said they currently have eight board members, but intend to add an additional four members. At least one of the members will be a parent of a child attending the school, which will eventually serve pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade.

Theresa Hopkins-Staten, vice chairwoman of the board, cautioned the Booker T. Washington Academy and urged school officials to include a nepotism clause in its bylaws.

“You indicate that staff members, employees or relatives of staff members, as long as they’re qualified, can work there,” Hopkins-Staten pointed out. “I caution you against that. This board has seen situations where that has not worked out well.”

She said that while there might not be an actual conflict of interest, “perception becomes reality and you don’t want those types of issues early on as you get this school off the ground.”

Taylor told the board that they have not hired any relatives of board members.

Booker T. Washington Academy was one of the near casualties connected to Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE), which lost its contracts to run turnaround schools in Bridgeport and Hartford following revelations that its director, Michael Sharpe, had been sentenced to more than two years in prison for embezzlement in 1989, with an earlier forgery conviction tied to a loan. Sharpe’s mother founded Jumoke Academy, which employs at least three of Sharpe’s relatives and inspired the creation of FUSE, according to the Hartford Courant. Sharpe also never received the doctorate he said he had earned from New York University.

The state was not aware of any of this, which has moved it to mandate background checks for charter school personnel going forward. The revelations forced Booker T. Washington Academy to sever its ties with FUSE and to create an independent management team to run the school.

Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now CEO Jennifer Alexander said she supports the revised proposal.

“New Haven’s kids should not be denied the opportunity to attend this school because FUSE apparently proved to be a less-than-honest partner,” Alexander said. “The hundreds of children and parents who have already applied to attend Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA) should not be negatively impacted by the egregious and possibly illegal activities at FUSE.”

As part of its revised proposal, BTWA will lease space for $50,000 from Achievement First, a public charter school organization. Taylor said Mayo, who recently stepped forward to mentor Taylor, was instrumental in lowering the asking price for the sublease.

He said they are paying less on the lease than what Achievement First is paying the landlord for the space.

“It’s a fraction of what they’re paying,” Taylor said.

The space on Green Street will be leased for about five months until the school is able to finish up more than $400,000 in renovations to its Blake Street location.

Members of the community, including parishioners from Morrison’s Varick Memorial A.M.E Church, spoke in favor of the school.

“We need a school that’s going to promote God’s principles,” Joanne Crudup told the school board.

Morrison said the only connection between the church and the school is that the vision for the school was coming from him.

“There’s no religious education being taught there. It is a public school,” Morrison said. “The closest thing you’ll get to religion is you ought to treat everybody right.”

Currently, there are 18 state charter schools serving 7,096 students. There are 1,151 public schools serving 545,614 public school students.