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Column: Charter school funding ethical?

Mike Matzko
Vail CO, Colorado

On Oct. 17 our Board of Education was to vote on a resolution to clarify its Sept. 26 gift of $2.5 million to the Eagle County Charter Academy for a community building/

gym/auditorium. However, according to the district’s legal counsel’s written opinions:

– The board’s notice to the public on September 26 was inadequate.



– A “direct donation” to Charter Academy “would be legally questionable.”

The board postponed further action on this matter until Nov. 5, the day before the election.



Public input came from a standing-room-only crowd representing the district’s mainstream public schools and the Charter Academy alike, each making its case as to why the board’s action was a good thing or a bad thing.

The mainstream public school supporters asked why the board would give the charter school $2.5 million when the board doesn’t yet know how much it needs for the majority of the district’s facility projects. Many wondered how this gift would affect the other district schools’ unmet needs. Several asked the board to rescind its vote. Someone asked about the apparent conflict with the district’s policies and the charter’s contract.

Charter Academy supporters praised the board for the wisdom of its decision, and spoke of the hardships of being forced to remain in unsafe meeting space and in modular buildings. Several spoke of being discriminated against by the other public schools; some implied they and their children are victims.



The charter school’s message had two consistent elements:

1. The Charter Academy is a district public school and is entitled to district funding for its community building/gym/auditorium.

2. The need for funding is urgent due to fire and life safety concerns. Their students are at risk.

But it was Jay Cerny, charter school principal, who took this second element to its logical and grisly conclusion: “If there was a safety issue during a school meeting, there would be dead children!” To avoid any ambiguity, he turned to the audience and repeated: “Dead children!”

I have some thoughts and questions to share. Safety first:

Since not one Charter Academy or district board member took issue with Mr. Cerny’s statements during the meeting or in the ensuing week, a reasonable person might ask:

– Ms. Hymes, Mr. Cerny, and Mr. Nolan: Are we to understand that you have knowingly allowed the 288 Charter Academy children to meet under unsafe conditions?

– District board members who cite safety as a key reason for your votes: Have you demanded that the charter school immediately halt this dangerous practice?

– And, since the Charter Academy’s student population and meeting space hasn’t changed significantly in at least six years, when did you first realize that this is a life-threatening situation?

Well, I will go out on a limb here: I don’t believe that anyone in the Charter Academy, board members included, would put any kids in physical danger. Nor would the district board allow it.

Can anyone familiar with the situation honestly say that the building is actually unsafe, or that these kids are really in any danger? Wouldn’t that be true only if someone were to pack these kids in there? Since the danger is public knowledge, doing so would be criminally and grossly negligent, wouldn’t it?

Rationally, this building looks more like a matter of comfort and convenience, than one of safety. A want, rather than a need. At least no more of a need than those of other public schools whose student populations can’t safely meet as a whole.

But, deliberately promoting this as a “fire and life safety” concern while knowing otherwise ” and using the charter kids as leverage ” would be a rather cynical manipulation of school parents and the public, wouldn’t it?

What kind of person promotes or knowingly participates in such a thing?

More on funding:

In pulling the board back from the brink of one legally questionable decision, the district’s attorney provided, at taxpayers’ expense, a seemingly legal path for the board to give the Charter Academy its new building and provide for its future building needs.

Oddly enough, counsel’s written opinion neither recommends this action, nor does it reference either written district policies or corresponding charter contract language.

If you accept this logic, then much of the considerable effort leading up to the 2006 bond election ” meetings, staff time, board time, the survey, the marketing, the campaigning, letters to the editor, columns, and so forth ” amounts to wasted time and money. At least 58 percent of the public’s understanding of the bond issue, reinforced by the district’s marketing ” not to mention those written policies, charter’s contract, etc. ” actually doesn’t mean much.

Final thoughts:

I find it particularly disturbing, other than Mr. Nolan’s claim of ignorance, that as of this writing not one of the district board members has responded directly to my question regarding the district’s written policy for funding charter facilities, or the similar language in the charter contract. Not one has even publicly acknowledged their existence.

You can find that policy at

http://eagleschools.net/teachers/policies/sectionl/LBDA_Facilities_Planning_For_Charter_Schools.pdf

Why continue to flog this horse? Because I believe that if most parents, teachers, and staff ” of either public school persuasion ” were to actually read those documents, and compare what they say with what our school leaders have been feeding us, many will come to the realization that the first element of the Charter Academy’s message, like the second, isn’t the whole truth, or even most of it.

What’s next?

The day before the election, the district board will hold a work session at 3 p.m. They can’t legally vote during a work session, so to finish the job they started on Sept. 26 before the election, they’ll need to hold a special meeting, posted 24 hours in advance, with a clearly worded agenda, a newly crafted motion, and four willing board members. They won’t call it a gift or donation. They’ll assert that it’s district property, knowing that the building will be used exclusively by the Charter Academy.

I see a silver lining, though. Our trusted community leaders have provided us with some rich material for discussions on civics and ethics; some lessons, in fact, quite appropriate in a program of character-based education. I see interesting discussions ahead for all of us when our kids ” charter and non-charter ” ask us how we, as parents, participated in this process.

See you on Nov. 5.

Mike Matzko is an Eagle-Vail resident. E-mail comments to editor@vaildaily.com.


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