SLV School District Perspectives
School Board Meeting Synopsis
March 31 , 2004 (Special Meeting)
Link To SLVUSD Web site Agendas and Minutes Page (Note: These are PDF files - read this if you have trouble opening them). Minutes are posted after they are approved, usually at the next regular meeting.
Note from Laura About These Synopses (Basically, I report on what I think will be most interesting to community residents. Consult the minutes for a more complete listing of what happened in the meeting.)
This special meeting was convened expressly for the purpose of finalizing the approval or denial of the petition of Redwood Academy, a proposed independent charter school. See previous school board meetings and this article for more background on this proposal.
Approval of Redwood Academy Charter
Plan for Meeting: Staff members have been working on reports related to the areas of the charter petition that correspond to their areas of expertise. After a motion is made regarding the charter, staff members give their reports. Following this, the superintendent makes a recommendation to the board. Then, community input takes place, followed by deliberation and voting by the board.
Motion - Jeff Bidmon moved to deny the charter, which was seconded by Barbara Sprenger.
Staff Reports - The guidelines used to evaluate the appropriate level of detail in the petition were mostly from the guidelines in the California Code of Regulations.* Occasional references were also made to the guidelines in a manual produced by the California School Boards Association called "Charter Schools: Manual for Governance Teams".
*These guidelines were posted at the meeting, with each one given a designation of the amount of evidence given by the petitioners to support completion of the guideline. More than half of the guidelines were designated "little evidence" or "no evidence".
1. Marilee French, Director of Instructional Services, addressed the educational plan and curriculum. She cited five researched-based elements of school success: leadership, parent and community involvement, a student-centered teacher-directed learning environment, high quality instruction, and high quality instructional materials. She went on to elaborate upon these elements and to say that the Redwood Academy petition did not give enough information to assess the likelihood of the school succeeding based on these elements, nor on the State guidelines for evaluating charter school petitions mentioned above. She especially cited lack of detail in the curriculum, benchmarks, measurable objectives, pupil outcomes, teacher qualifications, and teacher training in their curriculum plan. Specific examples include:
- Many types and subject matter of instructional materials were mentioned in the petition, but there wasn't enough money in the budget for all of them.
- There was no statement of how the various materials and elements would be integrated, or for whom they would be targeted. An example given was a reference to "college classes", with no reference to which classes and for whom, and how these would contribute to the overall educational goals of the school.
- Samples downloaded from the Internet (sometimes with a Redwood Academy copyright added) were used as examples of topics to be covered and these were only the broadest sketches. ("Week One of March will be Environment Week"). Other samples (again downloaded) showed a fragmented approach to teaching (e.g. for 4th grade, having geometry and algebra on alternating days), which is at odds with the school philosophy of an integrated curriculum.
- In places where the petition was supposed to be outlining "skills and outcomes" which the students would achieve, it talked in more general terms about "concepts and understandings" which should be covered.
- A point was made that the teachers who signed the petition are all inexperienced, with none having a clear credential, and at least two having only 30-day substitute permits. The report states, "It is unrealistic to think that teachers with little experience and no core curriculum available to them will have the expertise to create a viable academic program where students are instructed in the skills and concepts necessary for each grade level....Additionally, this school will have to have multigraded classes. How will one inexperienced secondary teacher meet the needs of 25 seventh and eighth graders in six core curricular areas?"
2. Edith Hendon, Director of Finances, went through the proposed Redwood Academy budget very meticulously. She pointed out oversights and made suggestions, both in the "plus" and "minus" columns - in other words, she pointed out mistakes that both underestimated and overestimated revenues in various categories, and the same for expenditures. She also pointed out areas where she didn't adjust the numbers, but was concerned that the school had not budgeted enough (e.g. $4000 for property and liability insurance seems low for an elementary school. Ms. Henden confirmed this apparent discrepancy with an insurance agent, but did not adjust the budget). Ms. Hendon estimated an ending balance of minus $80,000 the first year. She also found other problems:
- Cash Flow - Whereas cash flow projections in the Redwood Academy petition showed positive cash flow in each month, Ms. Henden calculated a negative cash flow in nine of the first twelve months, including the first three months, which she attributed to lack of an understanding of the California education money flow. This would create obvious difficulties in meeting their financial responsibilities.
- Lack of a clear plan for finance and business management.
Overall, Ms. Henden thought that the major problem was a "material lack of knowledge in the area of financial planning", which resulted in multiple deficiencies in this area.
Superintendent's Report - The superintendent recommended against granting the charter. First cited was the public hearing (which Education Code states can be used as evidence for or against the viability of the charter) which was weighted "against" approval, both by staff and community members. Other objections fell into three legal categories:
1) Petitioners Demonstrably Unlikely to Successfully Implement Program - some main points and examples (excluding material already covered above):
- "Virtually every detail of the operation of this proposed charter school...have been left to the future." "No alignment between mission and programs" "No evidence at all that the school's approach will lead to improved student performance, or that petitioners have a genuine understanding of effective, research-based educational practices."
- "Completely lacks a plausible plan for obtaining and financing adequate space in time for an orderly opening and operation of the school."
- "Plan to open Redwood Academy in Fall 2004 is unrealistic, and severely underestimates the complexities of developing and implementing a quality education plan and opening and operating a public school. There is no indication that petitioners have developed any specific knowledge of the curriculum, instruction, or assessment applicable to the instructional program they plan to implement, nor have their consultants. It is unclear whether they plan to write their own curriculum or purchase curriculum ready-made; they have neither given themselves time for the former, nor budgeted for the latter."
2) Petition does not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of all of the required elements of a charter petition.
- "Educational plan...contains few specifics. It appears to be based largely on documents and standards to be developed in the future by persons or groups whose identity and expertise is not specified."
- "No description of any Special Education plan, including...the process to be used to identify students who qualify for programs and services; how the school will provide or access special education programs and services; the school's understanding of its legal responsibilities" "In fact, the Supplemental Package implies that the charter school will enroll no students with disabilities"
- "The petitioners are evidently planning to incorporate as a nonprofit corporation but it appears that August 2004 would be the earliest date when this could take place Granting a charter to an entity which has not yet received nonprofit status creates a risk of liability for the District"
- Governance structure largely unstated, including the composition and means of selection of the governing board and many other elements.
- Qualifications of employees not described as in guidelines, also "Petitioners were specifically asked by the District to provide information as to the credentials held by prospective staff members. At first they agreed to give copies of teacher credentials to the District, but later refused".
- Other procedures not specified (health and safety, suspension/expulsion, dispute resolution, operational procedures).
3) Unsound educational program - Most of this is listed above. In summary, "The charter states that...Redwood Academy students 'will outperform other area public schools serving grades K-8...no evidence has been provided to demonstrate that petitioners have any understand of how to deliver on such a lofty promise."
The report emphasized that the petitioners simply have not had enough time to develop a school.
One community member suggested that the 4 board members that were recall targets a few months ago due to school closures recuse themselves from the decision-making process. [Of course, one board member cannot make a decision at all, so the whole thing would have come to an abrupt end!]
The only person to respond to the District's statements was an attorney who the petitioners have been consulting with. She began by saying the "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones", and pointed out that SLVUSD's Charter 25 would not meet the criteria the District is holding Redwood Academy to, even though it has been recently renewed. She also said that the Redwood Academy charter was closer to the norm than what the District was expecting.
The attorney that the District has been consulting with stated that 1) Charter 25 was chartered in 1993, and the standards were much different then. 2) An existing successful charter does not have to prove "likelihood of success", so renewals don't have to rise to the same standards.
For the most part, it seemed that board members had already reached their conclusions, having received the reports a couple of days before. Most of them thanked the staff for their work, and restated the reasons for denial which were most compelling to each board member (e.g. lack of educational leadership, lack of nonprofit status).
Bob Fultz was the lone voice on the other side. First, he pointed out that one third of K-8 charter schools were started by parents. He expressed disappointment that the analysis from staff came so late in the process. He felt that since the law says that charter schools are to be encouraged, the District should have worked more closely with the charter petitioners. He also feels that the petitioners should have been given extra time to bring the charter "up to spec".
Final vote was 4 to 1 to deny the charter.
Meeting was adjourned at 7:54 PM.
Comments from Laura:
First of all, I think that it is right and proper that the District be very careful about independent charter petitions. It certainly has a responsibility to the students and parents of the District to maintain standards of education in all its affiliated schools. Also, if a new school, under District oversight, fails, it could have a number of negative consequences. A bad school that doesn't make it would hurt the reputation of the District, at a time when retaining and attracting students is becoming an important focus. The District could lose money (even more than the school itself would create) if it has to pick up the pieces of a failed school. And it would be an enormous hassle to have to find classrooms and teachers for the students on short notice. This is not to say that anyone knows that Redwood Academy would be an inferior school or would fail - but it is to say that it is up to the petitioners to demonstrate that there is a high likelihood that they would be a good school - and this, unfortunately, they have not yet done. In particular, in order to know whether a school is likely to succeed, it's important that the petitioners present as clear as picture as they can of what day-to-day classroom instruction will like, and who will be presenting that instruction.
Obviously, the District has had to scrutinize and re-scrutinize its budget again and again over the last few years - this is what led to the school closings in the first place. It is tough to balance school budgets these days. Can we, as taxpayers, hold a potential new school to less of a standard than the District has had to achieve? We don't have to look far (Scotts Valley) to see how easily things can be missed in school finances. Can we allow a District school to be in the hands of anyone who has demonstrated less than topnotch abilities in school budgeting and finance management? I think that we cannot. Unfortunately, the cash flow analysis showed distressing gaps in planning.
What went wrong? I boil it down to a few things:
- Lack of time. This, to me, was the major stumbling block. Clearly, the petitioners were trying to do a very lot in a very short time. They had to get up to speed in many areas that were outside their areas of expertise. While it's demonstrably possible for a group of parents to accomplish this, to do it successfully in six months is probably exceedingly rare.
- Not enough research and/or lacking a variety of consultants - This is somewhat of a guess, but it seems to me that the petitioners were going on the advice of a very few people in a complex area with conflicting information. An example is a Web site that gives steps to forming a charter school that delineated tasks to be done AFTER charter approval, but which are in the "Review and Approval of Charter School Petitions by the State Board of Education" regulations as needing to happen BEFORE approval. The petitioners used the Web site, while the District went by the State guidelines. How can such discrepancies be resolved? One answer can be found elsewhere on the same Web site where advice is given to petitioners to "circulate the draft charter with staff from the charter granting agency (usually a school district) for commentary and feedback" BEFORE presenting it to potentially interested parents and teachers to sign. In this way, potential problems are circumvented, preventing a big "surprise" at the end of the approval period.
Another example of not having complete information is the issue of getting nonprofit status. When the consulting attorney for the District gave her presentation to the Board, one of the few pieces of hard advice she gave was to assure that this had been obtained, for liability protection. At that point, the petitioners did apply for nonprofit status, but now it will be at least until August before they complete this process. Most of the time, it takes even longer.
- Not enough interaction with district staff - As suggested above, the petitioners had very little interaction with District staff, although they tell me that what they did have was fairly positive. I'm guessing that they were worried about delaying the finished product by opening themselves up to too many "extra" demands, however, time may have been saved in the long run. As far as the District's side of it goes, I don't think the edict to "encourage" charter school development equals "forcing advice" on the petitioners, rather to be open to meeting as much as the petitioners would like, and supporting them in getting their ducks in a row during that time.
- Quicker generation of the staff report during the approval period - I agree with Bob Fultz that it would have been better if this had happened. On the other hand, I don't think it should be required that other deadlines slip while staff drops everything to generate a very time-consuming analysis of the petition. In particular, Edith Hendon had other important fish to fry in keeping the District on track with fiscal to the County. Also, in looking at the very long list of requirements, it doesn't seem to be likely that another month would have been enough time for the petitioners to complete them and still have time to do the rest of what is necessary to start a school by fall. I also noticed that the petitioners did not ask for extra time, as they could have. In any case, I think most people doing a cursory look at the petition and CSBA or State guidelines would have noticed quite a few deficiencies - many of these were brought up by teachers and community members at the public hearing, and turned out to be many of the same things cited in more detail in the staff reports.
On Comparisons with Charter 25 -
Finally, I have some things to add about the one and only defense the petitioners gave the Board - comparing their charter with Charter 25, the District's dependent charter.
Since 1993, when Charter 25 received its approval, requirements to start a charter school have changed. Indeed, those working on the Charter Task Force a few years ago (when the SLVUSD applied to become a Charter District) tell me that requirements changed over the period they were working on it, requiring revisions before submission. Nothing under law that I am aware of says that renewals have to be held to more recent standards, and indeed, as the District's attorney pointed out, there is no reason to think they should - after all, a current charter doesn't need to prove that it has a high probability of success. In addition, the fact that Charter 25 is a dependent charter make many of the provisions required for an independent charter superfluous - most of the policies and procedures (e.g. collective bargaining, health and safety, special education) are already in place in the District, and a dependent charter agrees to abide by those procedures. In many ways, petitions for dependent vs independent charters would be substantially different, and I think it would be difficult to compare them.
Along these lines, the question was asked whether any of our charter schools have failed. Although this was answered in the affirmative, this is actually incorrect. The SLVUSD has one charter school - Charter 25. When the former superintendent came up with the idea to make it an umbrella school with many titles under it, one of the main reasons for this was flexibility - the various titles could come and go as needs arose and waned, without having to reapply for a new charter each time.
In closing, as I said in my previous article on this subject, I look forward to the SLVUSD providing more high quality educational alternatives, however they come to us. If Redwood Academy gets more of its planned offerings nailed down, it could be a valuable addition to the SLV.