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Ball State gives new life to Fountain Square charter

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Fountain Square Academy, a charter middle and high school with about 270 students, has been given a reprieve after Ball State University decided to grant it a charter to continue operating after this school year.

But the not-for-profit that founded and managed the school, Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation, will be removed as operator of the school.

Ball State took the same action in February with Fall Creek Academy, another charter school started and operated by GEO. Both schools got a three-year charter, the minimum allowed by state law.

The decisions by Bob Marra, executive director of the city's office of charter schools, reverses a decision he made in December not to grant a charter to the two schools.

The schools so far have been overseen by the mayor of Indianapolis’ charter schools office. But they applied to Ball State for new charters after Mayor Greg Ballard ordered the Fountain Square Academy to close at the end of this school year.

“Fountain Square Academy has not lived up to the performance standards for multiple years,” Ballard said in March of 2011. “Charters that do not meet the criteria should not be permitted to operate.”

The decision to close Fountain Square marked the first time Ballard chose to shut down a charter school. It was also the first time a charter school in Indiana faced closure primarily for academic reasons.

Since then, Fountain Square’s academic performance has increased greatly. It ended the 2011 school year with a graduation rate of 93 percent.

That improvement gave Marra confidence to keep Fountain Square open by granting a new charter. But he made the removal of GEO a condition for both Fountain Square and Fall Creek gaining a new charter.

GEO will remain the employer of the schools’ staff members and the back-office operator for the next school year, but will be entirely displaced afterward.

Instead, the Indianapolis Challenge Foundation, which operates an Indianapolis charter school called Challenge Academy, will provide “academic support” to the board of directors that oversees both Fountain Square and Fall Creek academies.

Also, Challenge Foundation’s Gene Zink has joined the board of the Fall Creek and Fountain Square academies.

The board is chaired by Rollie Dick, the former chief financial officer of Carmel-based Conseco Inc. He did not return a phone call by IBJ’s deadline for this story.

Marra said Ballard’s office expressed concerns about having GEO Foundation continue to be involved in the schools. One key issue was that in 2011, GEO Foundation dismissed the board overseeing Fountain Square and Fall Creek academies.

The schools’ founding documents—approved by the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office—gave GEO that power; however, Marra added, the school operator shouldn't have been able to dismiss the board.

“We made that a condition, that they not be involved, because of the issues that we listened to [from] the Mayor’s Office,” Marra said. “It wasn’t anything illegal what GEO did, but removing the board members gave them some concerns.”

Kevin Teasley, president of the GEO Foundation, said that after Ball State declined to give charters to Fountain Square and Fall Creek in December, he actually suggested that GEO end its work with the school, in order to help the schools stay open.

“Our only concern has been that the two schools continue to serve the communities that they serve, because they are much needed,” Teasley said. “And we are pleased that Ball State has approved the charters for the two schools.”

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