Tuesday, February 24, 2009

School Finance: A Mystery?

By Guest Blogger, Kim Miller, Ridgeview Classical Schools

I will admit that starting a charter school has been an exciting adventure to say the least. I have been down roads and paths I never would have envisioned. Ensuring that the school budget was the financial mission statement in action was certainly a major part of starting a successful charter school. However, continued oversight of the finances of a 730 student school was nothing I planned on. Successfully writing grants, acquiring a bond for the schools' facility, developing current year budgets, and projecting future budgets are only some of the "never envisioned" items. The economic times we are all facing, coupled with an established school whose facility leaves little room for student growth is a particular challenge.

Our board had to notify the teachers of the impending rescission and zero increase in the PPR for the next year or two. Having to convey the result... "no raises" was certainly not a pleasant task, yet it was awesome. What was awesome? Our teacher’s reactions. The teachers understood and accepted the information communicating trust and awareness of the economic situation the state is in, while believing at the same time their board is looking out for them. They are so truly educational professionals.

But, as I continue to look at this situation I am extremely frustrated that the same legislature that can take back funds, has instituted a significant increase in the employers' contribution to PERA. I would certainly prefer giving the increase directly to my teachers. I do have a hard time believing this PERA increase will save PERA from its own "train wreck". The benefits of PERA are awesome but unsustainable, even with the dramatic increases. At best if PPR is flat so should PERA be. Apparently there is some information out there that the legislature is going to look at PERA next year. Why wait? I am all for a decent retirement plan but not at the expense of the students.

Our charter schools are exceptional because our teachers and administrators are exceptional. We have teachers who have to make lifestyle choices so they can "afford" to be teachers at Ridgeview Classical Schools. I know Ridgeview is not the only charter school out there in the same boat. Our teachers fill the most important role on earth. They educate the students of tomorrow, ultimately our future and hope. Education through highly qualified, non-unionized teachers is our future.

At Ridgeview the ultimate goal as stated by our first principal, Dr. Terrence Moore is "to remove ignorance, teaching our students to seek the good, the beautiful, and the true." If you see any other immediate answer to the next couple of years' flat or lowered PPR please share it. If not I would greatly appreciate your joining me in questioning the current and future PERA increases within the context of our current funding crisis. Stay connected with your state representatives. Talk with your districts. Maybe this is a question we can all (charters and traditional government public schools) ask together?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Want to be a Charter School Board Member?

Guest Blogger Dave Brazzell, Woodrow Wilson Academy Governing Board President

I feel honored to write a fill-in post while the blog host is out of town. We keep her in our prayers. I thought I’d write on the subject of why be on a charter school board? The obvious reason is to help direct our children’s education, but really my motives are selfish, I’m in it for the entertainment. The situations can be amusing. The people can be intense, but the results can be inspirational. It’s better than reality TV and it involves real life. I am continually surprised and amazed by the people in our school. We have our usual problems and discussions like other charters, but this stuff is fun. Sitting in meetings, answering parents' questions, dealing with budget shortfalls, and hearing about problems with kids can be grueling. This is real life. People amaze me at how they bring their own experiences and expertise to the table from every different walk of life. Trying to get parents, teachers, staff and the board to work together is hard work and yet our school runs surprisingly smooth. That’s what’s amusing; the charter school model actually works in spite of our differences.

I had the opportunity to have a discussion with one of my peers from a rural charter school. He was trying to bring more focus to his board and get ideas from other charter school board members from around the state. While our school has over 500 kids and a strong, focused board with seven members, his school has less than 75 kids and a board of 11 members. Talk about your entertainment. That might be more than I’d want to deal with.

If you are thinking about joining your kid’s school board, just a little advice: bring all your personal experiences, get a good mentor and enjoy, and like a good movie, the entertainment can be amusing, heart-breaking, and fulfilling.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Take Action!

The League of Charter Schools puts out a weekly legislative update with important information for charter school leaders and parents. Read this week's update to get the latest information on the charter school capital construction cuts and upcoming information on Charter Schools Week.

Blog Posting Change

While I am with my mother who is in the final stages of her battle with cancer, others will be guest blogging. Everyone who posts is associated with a charter school in Colorado.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

CSI Becomes "School Food Authority"

The State Board of Education adopted emergency rules to allow the Charter School Institute to be a "school food authority," which will allow them to contract with a vendor for food services at any of their charter schools.

Only the CSI can get this authority from the state board according to an Attorney General opinion. Many charter schools in the state are not getting the federal Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) reimbursement because they haven't contracted with their district for food services. Charter schools want the option to contract with an independent vendor and still offer a qualified hot lunch program.

Legislation to make it easier for charter schools to contract with private vendors will be introduced this legislative session.

Friday, February 20, 2009

CSI Wins at Court of Appeals

Justice Meyer has upheld the decision by a lower court that the state Charter School Institute is constitutional. Soon after the 2004 Charter School Institute law was adopted and the Boulder Valley School District was not granted exclusive chartering authority, BVSD along with the Poudre School District and Westminster 50 School District brought the suit. Poudre and Westminster later dropped out of the case. The year after the lawsuit was filed, BVSD received exclusive chartering authority from the State Board of Education.

At the heart of the lawsuit was the constitutionality of the CSI to authorize charter schools because the Colorado Constitution provides for the "local contol" of education. Key to the determination that the "balance of power" between the state and the local school district was the right of the school district to grant charters if they chose to do so. The CSI law doesn't make a district approve a charter, it simply gives them another venue if the local board denies the charter application or is otherwise unfriendly to charter schools. Further, a charter applicant can apply simultaneously to both CSI and the local district if the district doesn't have exclusive chartering authority.

Last year's legislature amended the CSI law to allow districts with exclusive chartering authority for an indefinite term. They no longer need to apply each year. Only a handful of districts over 3,000 students do not have exclusive chartering authority. Districts over 3,000 must demonstrate certain criteria in order to determine eligibility.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Contract or Charter?

Denver Public Schools has several "contract" schools that are not charter schools. In fact, a couple of the contract schools are private schools with only certain grade levels operating under a contract with DPS. The recently closed Challenges, Choices and Images Charter Schools is now operating under a contract and isn't a charter school for the remainder of this school year.

What's the difference? Very little. "Charter" and "contract" are synonymous. Charter schools can get waiver from state statute, rules and district regulations much easier than a contract school can. Although the legislation that passed last session authorizing "innovation" schools makes that easier, too.

Generally, a contract school has a closer tie with the district and doesn't have contractual autonomy guaranteed by the Charter Schools Act. However, provisions in the contract may allow for a great deal of autonomy, even autonomy in employing at-will employees.

This is another gray area of the law. I've read contracts with "contract" schools that provide for greater flexibility and autonomy than a charter schools. The provisions in each contract or charter are unique and may vary greatly.

Technically, a charter school operates via a contract with an authorizers, has waivers (or the ability to request waivers) and autonomy as provided in the state Charter Schools Act. Contract schools are unique according to each district that operates them. In fact, they may even be called different titles, such as "magnet," "option," or "focus." These schools may not even have a contract: it's totally up to the district in which they operate.

Some schools such as D'Evelyn Junior/Senior High, are commonly mistakenly called a charter school. D'Evelyn is an option school in Jefferson County. It originally applied for a charter and option status simultaneously in 1994, but ultimately chose the option route. Challenges, Choices and Images closed and is now operating as Amandla Academy as a contract school with DPS. It will probably operate as a charter school next year, however.

Even though schools may "look" like a charter school, that doesn't mean they are. Each school is unique and the key to "what" they are is understood by reading the contract/charter.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Charter School Institute Hears Two Charter Applications

This morning the Charter School Institute board heard the Provost Online Academy charter proposal and interviewed prospective board members. The 4-inch application had numerous gaps that were identified by CSI board members. The board asked the applicants to consider withdrawing their application for a 2009 opening and instead apply again late summer for a 2010 opening. The Edison Learning Company will manage the Provost Academy.

This afternoon the CSI board heard the Calvert Online Academy charter proposal. Applicants withdrew the application just prior to the board's vote, knowing that it would be denied. Board members encouraged the applicants to come back with another application that was more thorough. Calvert already manages several brick and mortar schools; this would have been its first online academy.

Brief "spotlight" reports were given by the leaders of Colorado Springs Early College and The Pinnacle Charter School. The Pinnacle hosted today's CSI board meeting.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Woodrow Wilson Academy

In honor of President's day, it's important to note that the only U.S. President to have been a teacher was Woodrow Wilson. It's this reason that founders of Woodrow Wilson Academy in Westminster chose this President's name for their school.

WWA opened in 2000 after a unanimous approval by the Jefferson County school board. In fact, the school board termed the WWA charter application "flawless."

The school serves students in grades K through 8 and uses the Core Knowledge curriculum. The school also has a Home School Connection for homeschooling families and a Core Knowledge preschool.

The Principal, Tim Matlick, was a board member for many years before taking on the lead administrator job five years ago. His strong background in staffing and business management has been an asset to the school.

The WWA board has been a model for other schools in their financial practices, board policies, and use of technology. The board uses an entirely electronic board packet and the school no longer distributes a hard copy of the weekly newsletter. Instead, parents get it emailed to them.

It is proper for full disclosure to note that I'm currently serving as a community member on the WWA board.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Charter School Facility Funding Bill Killed

According to EdNews Colorado Sen. Keith King's charter school facility financing bill died in Senate Ed on Tuesday. Allowing cities and counties to issue bonds to fund charter school facilities and allowing charters access to state trust lands have been discussed for years. Charter schools continue to spend operating funds for facility financing and have less options for financing than do school districts in Colorado.

Charter Enrollment Up in Denver

Denver Public Schools charters more schools than any other district in Colorado, even though it is the fifth largest according to student count. Next year DPS will have more than 20 charter schools in operation.

Denver charter schools continue to outperform district-operated schools and send more students to college. Moreover, Denver is allowing charter schools to occupy district-owned school facilities; the first district in Colorado to willingly do this.

The number of students enrolling in Denver exceeds the district's; in fact, the district's enrollment is in decline. According to the Rocky Mountain News:
Consider these projections: Enrollment in DPS charter schools is expected to grow by 1,053 students for fall. Enrollment in DPS traditional schools is expected to decline by 668. All figures are for preschool through grade 12.

Obviously the success of schools like Denver School of Science and Technology, West Denver Prep, and KIPP Sunshine Peak have created a stir in Denver. Recently the DPS board of education approved a high school for KIPP, a new Cesar Chavez Academy-Denver campus, a middle school for DSST's high school program and a second W Denver Prep campus.

Parents in Denver are now considering quality options for their children's educations. DPS nurtures this school choice environment by creating new charter and contract schools through the issue of a Request for Proposals that outlines the district's educational option needs. Clearly, DPS is considering their complete portfolio and examining how to use their options successfully.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Jefferson Academy Beats Both Pinnacle Teams

Today the Jefferson Academy Jaguars played The Pinnacle Timberwolves at the Broomfield Event Center. The girls teams played first and JA won 49 to 41. This is the second time these two charter school teams have played and JA won last time, too.

The boys game wasn't as close in score. The first half the two teams battled it out, but then the second half was completely JA's. The final score was JA 79 to Pinnacle's 40. In the boys match-up earlier this season JA also won.

Unions and Charters: Like Oil and Water

Much has been made of the New York KIPP charter school that unionized. Now another KIPP school staff has voted to unionize and KIPP officials are opposing the action. KIPP AMP (Always Mentally Prepared) charter school in Brooklyn opened in 2005 and enrolls 275 students in grades 5-8.

The Center for Education Reform had this to say about it:

Question: What do the union organizing of charter schools and the stimulus
package have in common?
Answer: Both bail out the status quo in general, and unions in particular.
To wit:

NAIVE? For several years the leaders of the AFT have been hanging around charter school conferences, even been asked to speak. The warm and fuzzies of these prized visits disarmed charter supporters. Now with highly successful charters getting infiltrated for union takeovers, some are wondering if they were duped (you think?!).

KIPP. Knowledge is indeed power, but the push by a few teachers to organize this model school seems to have been discounted until it was too late. Now KIPP is fighting back, and the union effort may end up in arbitration if not accepted by Thursday. What KIPP needs to do is remind its teachers and families that its success with students - the point of it all - is accomplished by individual teachers executing a unique program, and not the result of union rules.

DO YOU SEE A PATTERN? In another AFT stronghold, the union is attempting to move in on the hugely successful Chicago International Charter School. With the freedom from contracts that charters were designed to enjoy, Chicago International has created a world-class system of schools that help stem the exodus of families in the Windy City and provides exceptional schooling to more than 6,400 kids. That is apparently not enough for the AFT, which is working to place fear in the hearts of devoted teachers there. Says executive director Beth Purvis, "We realize that unions may have played an important role in schools across the country; however Chicago International's position is that they are not necessary within our charter school and that unions may not have a positive impact on our mission."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Where's Common Sense?

More than a decade ago, a little girl accidentally grabbed her mother's lunch box instead of her own. She inadvertently brought a paring knife to school, which her mother had intended to use to peel an apple for lunch. The young girl, upon finding the knife, immediately took it to the lunchroom attendant. Sounds like the girl used common sense and did the right thing, right? Wrong. This situation erupted into legislation and national media attention. According to state law, the principal had to expel the student for bringing a "dangerous weapon" to school.

This situation actually happened at Twin Peaks Charter Academy in Longmont. I remmember the uproar at the Legislature when people wondered "why wasn't common sense at play in this situation?"

Fast forward to 2009 and the state of Colorado is once again pondering "where is common sense?" Seventeen-year-old high school senior Marie Morrow has been suspended for 10 days and will soon face an expulsion for having three drill practice rifles in the back of her car on campus. Tustin Amole, speaking for the Cherry Creek School District this morning on KOA radio said that state law requires Morrow be expelled, but it does give discretion for how long the expulsion will be.

Less than a year before the little girl brought a paring knife to Twin Peaks Academy a little first grade boy brought a Chinese star to Jefferson Academy Charter School in Broomfield for show and tell. The principal, using common sense contacted the district to inquire about his options and then technically expelled the boy for the rest of the afternoon and the boy was back in school the following day. No big deal and no media attention.

Who really believes lawmakers intended for little children to be expelled for a mishap when they didn't even realize they were "breaking" a state law? Marching band color guards across the nation use wooden rifle facsimiles for their routines and yet we've never heard about color guard team members being expelled from school for transporting their facsimile rifles. Watch as Marie Morrow will be expelled from high school during her senior year even though she is a model student who plans to attend the U.S. Marine Merchant Academy next year.

For more on zero-tolerance absurdity, check out Ben DeGrow's column at EdNews Colorado. Mr. Bob has information on how to contact the principal and district superintendent.

Monday, February 9, 2009

What's Up with K-12 Budget Cuts?

Everybody is talking about what will or will not be cut from K-12 public education money this year. Right now, the Joint Budget Committee is considering an across-the-board ~$20 a student recission. Just recently I've heard both that only a quarter of Charter School Capital Construction money will be cut and that half of the money will be cut.

Right now the discussion is about current fiscal year cuts. In the next few weeks the School Finance Act bill will be introduced and then we'll get a better sense of what budget cuts to expect for the upcoming school year. With about half of the state budget going to K-12 public education, severe cuts are inevitable.

Most people who deal with the financial budgeting process in charter schools are factoring a zero percent growth in per student revenue for the 2009-10 school year. Charter School Capital Construction money should never be counted on in a charter school budget because it's subject to approval by the Legislature each year and is not guaranteed.

CDE has a bill tracker on its website this year. This site and the General Assembly's home page should both be bookmarked and visited regularly by every charter school leader in Colorado.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

SB 90 Bad for Charter Schools

It doesn't take long for people who don't like charter schools to introduce legislation to whittle away at the key points that make charter schools successful. Newly elected state Senator Evie Hudak (D-Arvada) has introduced a bill, SB 90, to do just that. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Debbie Benefield (D-Westminster).

When Hudak served on the State Board of Education she didn't like it that charter schools sought, and received, waiver from the School Advisory Council (accountability committee) law. Charter schools established before Jan. 1, 2000 and having designated their charter governing board as their accountability committee were grandfathered from the amended law. Under SB 90, Hudak wants to eliminate the right of charter schools to get a waiver from accountability committees.

The original accountability statute predates the 1993 Charter Schools Act. The legislative intent of the accountability law is to have parents involved in their child's education. About 20 years ago I first got involved with my child's neighborhood public school accountability committee. It only took a couple of meetings for me to realize it was entirely window dressing and that parents really had no say. Unlike the statute which says parents should have say in how grant funds and operations are spent what happens in reality at the school is quite different.

A few years ago I got involved in the accountability committee at my daughter's neighborhood high school. It was more a publicity time where information was given about school accomplishments and programs. Parents were not involved in any decision making and tough questions were avoided. It was the forum the school district superintendent and principal took to share information about the teacher's union negotiation stalemate, however. Of course, the teachers at the meeting were very defensive when the superintendent's letter about the stalemate was read.

Generally, I've found that administrators of neighborhood public schools are intimidated by parents and don't even know how to involve them in a meaningful way. This is the opposite of many charter schools that encourage, and even require, parental involvement. The difference is night and day. Charter schools take parents seriously because they have to: it's the essence of their operating because they're dependent on demand. No students equals no school.

Hudak's bill specifically targets charter schools. It undermines the authority of the charter school governing board, which should alarm all 1,000 plus charter school board members in the state. The bill even goes so far as to say that if a charter school doesn't have an accountability committee, that's grounds for revocation! Notice the proposed legislation doesn't take into account academic achievement as a means for keeping a charter school open, it simply states that not following a senseless state rule is grounds for revocation.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Accountability 2.0 in Colorado

Public schools in Colorado face a myriad of accountability requirements and now legislation has been introduced to streamline that into a central point of accountability: accreditation. Colorado's accreditation law was enacted in 1998 with the hopes that finally there would be teeth in holding school accountable for academic performance. Between the "good ol' boys club" in public education and the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, the landscape of accountability only became more confusing.

No Child Left Behind holds schools accountable for all students being proficient in reading and math--Adequate Yearly Progress, it's called. School achievement data is broken down into different subgroups that are meant to prevent students from "falling behind" or falling through the cracks unnoticed. Recently Colorado became one of the pilot states to get its growth model approved for federal accountability.

The new legislation, carried by Sen. Keith King (R-Colo. Springs) and Rep. Karen Middleton (D-Aurora) aligns all of the accountability measures under state accreditation. Under the new system, school districts not performing adequately will receive additional support and service to increase their levels of performance.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Charter School Institute Bill, SB 89

Sen. Keith King (R-Colo. Springs) and Rep. Karen Middleton (D-Aurora) are co-sponsors of a bill to clean up some issues for the Charter School Institute. The bill will permit CSI to carry over funds into the next fiscal year and operate with more autonomy from state agency laws.

Under current law CSI schools are limited in what they can do to finance their facilities. SB 89 would allow for one percent to be held for a capital construction grant assistance fund. The amount being withheld by CDE for each CSI student will be decreased through this legislation, allowing for the difference to be put into this capital construction fund. Schools with unusual capital construction needs would be able to apply for a grant if they have matching funds.

Additionally, this bill would allow CSI schools to participate in the State Treasurer's intercept program. Non-CSI charter schools can divert some of their money directly to the State Treasurer's account designed for this purpose, to pay their bonds directly. This ensures a better rate for the charter schools because their funds are more secure.

Probably the most important provision in SB 89 is the ability for CSI to charter a school with "statewide interest" anywhere in the state. There has been talk over the years about creating a migrant education program that travels throughout the state or an alternative school for a particular region of the state. Currently CSI can only charter in districts that don't have exclusive chartering authority. Allowing CSI to charter a "statewide interest" school would open up the possibilities to serve needy student populations in a more economical manner.