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Con: Charter school hasn’t lived up to its terms

Mike Matzko
Vail CO, Colorado

First, let’s all agree that the Eagle County Charter Academy is a public school. And that it’s a public charter school, which was formed based upon an agreement (the charter) with the school district. This agreement was apparently a much-discussed and well thought-out document. And quite specific.

The charter and the school district’s policy clearly outline the funding process for the charter academy’s capital facilities. Through a bond election, either as part of the school district’s ballot question, or as a standalone ballot question.

In the 2006 bond question, the Eagle County Charter Academy was clearly involved, per their charter and the Eagle County Board of Education policy. The charter school ultimately chose to withdraw from the election; the bond passed.

Under questionable circumstances last fall the Eagle County School District board nearly granted $2.5 million to the charter school for its new building. In response to concerned parents, teachers, and staff, the board later chose to rescind its vote. In making that final motion, Brian Nolan stated that any future charter academy funding would not come out of bond proceeds.

That was nearly six months ago. And, rather than preparing a ballot question of its own for this November’s election while there was still plenty of time to do so, the charter academy board once again chose the easier approach: keep asking the school district board until it gets the answer it wants.

At tonight’s board meeting, the Eagle County Charter Academy hopes to get $2.75 million. The crux of their argument is the charter school is a public school so it deserves funding for its buildings.

Taken alone, this statement makes sense. The problem is, it represents a change of rules without bothering to formally and openly change the rules.

They argue the bond funds are all spent or accounted for and Eagle County Charter Academy is only asking for a part of what’s left over. The first part isn’t really accurate; the bond projects are far from complete, and may well require additional funding. Renovating the old Battle Mountain High School is one case in point.

One also has to consider the $50 million (a conservative estimate) in deferred capital projects listed in the District’s 2007-8 budget.

The district doesn’t have funding for these projects. Its building wasn’t included because the charter school has, since its inception, a different funding process for capital needs.

I’d like the board to clearly explain why the charter academy building has now appeared on ” and moved to the front of ” a list it wasn’t on to begin with at all. And to explain which schools lose as a result.

To put this more in context, the charter school receives the full measure of per-pupil revenue including overrides. This removes 100 percent of this revenue from the mainstream public schools, but leaves behind about half of the costs, like building utilities and maintenance, staffing, food service, and so forth. Ask the district staff about this.

Also included in the per-pupil revenue is state funding for at-risk children, which, according to the Colorado Department of Education, Eagle County Charter Academy has none. It’s my understanding that the charter school receives nearly $60,000 in annual funding for these nonexistent at-risk children anyway.

In name, the Eagle County Charter Academy is a “school of choice.” But if you look at it today, it’s arguably 180 degrees from what the state enabling legislation contemplates, and what the school’s charter includes as a goal:

“Promote diversity of students and teachers.

The Academy goal is to have our Academy population reflect the ethnic and economic population of the county.”

The charter academy asserts it has diligently tried to correct this. Many of us wonder, however. Enrollment is effectively capped at less than 300, and entry is by lottery. When you look at the list of exceptions to the lottery ” those who were on the waiting list prior to the lottery, children of teachers and staff, and siblings of students ” the actual number of available spaces shrinks. There’s no bus service, no free or reduced lunch program, and mandatory parent volunteer commitment in school activities including fundraising. Ironically, the population most affected by these conditions is the at-risk students whose needs charter schools are supposed to address.

More than a few people, inside and outside of the charter academy observe a school culture that subtly (and sometimes overtly) discourages non-native English speakers from even applying. While it may not have been the intent of the school’s founders, I would argue that the Eagle County Charter Academy’s nondiversity has effectively become structural.

Some even argue that the charter school no longer serves the school district as intended, and in fact has become the opposite of what it set out to be. Achieving high test scores, but effectively eliminating the equally important social and character development that comes from being part of a diverse population.

By covering its collective eyes and ears and voting for this funding tonight, the Board of Education would arguably be making an endorsement.

Here’s an alternative: Tell the charter school it’s time to walk the walk. If you want a building for your public school ” which you have so clearly distanced from the rest of the public schools ” then live up to your charter.

Put a ballot question out there that is clear in its intent, and I’ll pay my share of a bond approved by the voters. Until then, kindly take your hand out of my pocket.

And if you’re angry about this, please direct it at those responsible for the mess you find yourselves in. Start by looking in the mirror, then call your board members.

Mike Matzko is an Eagle-Vail resident. E-mail comments about this column to letters@vaildaily.com.


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