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April 4, 2012
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Independent charter school opening downvalley campus

The county's independent charter school is on solid financial footing and expanding into the Eagle-Gypsum area, the school's board members said.

Stone Creek Charter School will open a kindergarten through eighth-grade campus this fall in Gypsum, while it keeps its campus in Edwards. Stone Creek got the green light to expand earlier this week from the Colorado Charter School Institute, a division of the state Department of Education.

"We've been talking about this for a year and a half," said Mitzi Forrester, a member of the school's board of directors. "The goal is to open this fall. We are going to work tirelessly to make that happen."

The school's modular buildings have already been moved from the school's former Avon site to the new site in Gypsum.

"We're not abandoning what we have, but we need to expand," Forrester said.

The school is responding to market forces, Forrester said. They've been getting dozens of calls from parents in the western end of the valley, asking why there is no school of choice in their area, and have families from Glenwood Springs willing to make the daily trek to the Gypsum site, Forrester said.

Upvalley is saturated with public, private and religious schools, Forrester said.

"(Stone Creek principal) John Brendza has always insisted that our growth potential would be downvalley. We've been talking about it for a year and a half. Six or seven months ago, the board had its 'ah-ha' moment. The more parents who call, the more we're convinced it's the right move."

The school cut a new lease deal for its space in Gracious Savior Lutheran Church and the Edwards Interfaith Chapel and Community Center, where it will continue to hold classes.

The school is cash-flowing and should be fine, Forrester said.

Rocky road to success

Stone Creek Charter School opened in 2006 and its road has been rocky.

Stone Creek's first principal, Bill Hammer, admitted stealing more than $68,000 that was supposed to pay the rent. He deposited the money in two of his personal businesses. Hammer also used Stone Creek money to pay back rent he owed to Vail Resorts for his shop in Beaver Creek.

Lingering building expenses and grants that were budgeted but never materialized left the school in a financial hole.

Wells Fargo violated Colorado's TABOR Amendment when it loaned Stone Creek $1.2 million, to be repaid over several years. TABOR makes it illegal in Colorado for tax-funded entities to take on multiyear debt. Stone Creek is a state-funded public school.

Stone Creek repaid more than $800,000 of the loan. Late last year, Wells Fargo walked away from the rest.

When the school was forced to move from Avon to Edwards, enrollment dropped from around 200 students to 137. The enrollment decline meant a cut its state revenues. The school laid off its music and art teachers, and cut its administrative staff in half.

Test scores soaring

All that has not seemed to bother Stone Creek's students. The Stone Creek middle school students just won a John Irwin Award for being one of Colorado's best-performing schools.

Kristin Stolpa, CSI school performance director, analyzed Stone Creek's Northwest Evaluation Association results between the fall 2011 and winter 2012.

Stone Creek is performing at a very high level when student achievement results from fall to winter are compared, Stolpa said.

"In all of my experience analyzing educational data, this is the first time I have seen a school demonstrate overall academic increases such as these during a time of declining enrollment," Stolpa said.


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The VailDaily Updated Apr 4, 2012 12:57PM Published Apr 4, 2012 12:56PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.