School district cries foul over Stone Creek land deal
EAGLE, Colorado – Days after Avon and Traer Creek announced that a legal settlement would provide land for Stone Creek Charter School instead of the school district, the Eagle County School District asked state officials to investigate Stone Creek.In a letter dated Oct. 24 and obtained by the Daily, the school district wrote to Colorado state Senate President Brandon Shaffer outlining “potential (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) concerns.”Traer Creek and Avon announced their settlement Oct. 11.On Dec. 1, Shaffer sent the matter to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers requesting his opinion.In its letter to Shaffer, the school district claims it’s concerned about oversight by the Charter School Institute, the state agency overseeing the state’s 22 charter schools and the 10,500 students who attend them.”We simply are asking for the Charter School Institute to provide appropriate oversight and that SCCS uphold the same standards as any other public school or any other taxpayer-funded entity in terms of openness, transparency and fiscal responsibility,” said Sandra Smyser, the school district superintendent.”They are accusing us of not providing oversight. It’s simply not true,” said Peg LaPlante, chief operating officer for the Charter School Institute. “It’s a good school that’s struggling to find a facility.”Stone Creek is struggling but sound, said Mark Hyatt, executive director of the Charter School Institute.”We’re a free-market deal; we’re competition. We’re someone else to dance with,” Hyatt said. “They’d like to have authority over every public school’s education. We’re like the scabs of that industry.”Questions in Avon Avon announced plans to give Traer Creek’s school development to Stone Creek Charter School, which could make it Traer Creek’s neighborhood school. The per-pupil funding for Stone Creek students goes to the independent charter school, not the school district.”The town is considering giving Stone Creek land from a developer which gives them the responsibility to provide schooling for a future development – which in our view is impossible and contrary to the intent of the requirement on developers to deed land (or money) to districts to meet the needs of new students that are created by future development,” Smyser said.In its letter to Shaffer, the school district claims that the development agreement specifies that the land should go to the district. However, the document says only that land be used for “school, outdoor recreation, parks or open space.”In fact, Avon updated its municipal code to allow the town to give that land to the school of its choice, according to the town’s code.Stone Creek is a public charter school independent of the school district. Ron Wolfe, president of Stone Creek’s board of directors, declined comment on the school district’s concerns about TABOR and oversight by the Charter School Institute.”Stone Creek School works closely and continuously with our authorizer, CSI, on all budget, financial reporting matters,” Wolfe wrote.Five-year-old loanThe school district points to Stone Creek’s 2006 loan for $1.2 million from Wells Fargo and a $100,000 loan from the Charter School Institute as possible TABOR violations.They’re not, said LaPlante.”It’s my understanding that they’ve settled the Wells Fargo loan,” LaPlante said. Stone Creek has not taken the $100,000 from the Charter School Institute, LaPlante said. That $100,000 would come from a CSI assistance fund to which all 22 of Colorado’s independent charter schools contribute.That money will help cover Stone Creek’s moving expenses, but Stone Creek hasn’t tapped into it yet, LaPlante said.”It’s not for operations. That’s against the state statute,” LaPlante said.During years when revenues are going up, 1 percent of each independent charter school’s per-pupil funding goes into an assistance fund. Another 3 percent goes to fund the state’s entire Charter School Institute operation, Hyatt said.”There’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s all on the up and up,” LaPlante said.State agency oversightThe Charter School Institute was established seven years ago by state lawmakers because some school districts around the state refused to allow charter schools.”By statute, we’re a very different organization,” LaPlante said.The CSI gets requests every year from groups of parents who want to start an independent charter school, Hyatt said.”It’s autonomy with accountability,” Hyatt said.The CSI keeps track of academics and finances of independent charter schools such as Stone Creek. It reviews quarterly reports and finances for 22 independent charter schools. It submits that information to the Colorado Department of Education.It has a performance-management council to make sure the money is being spent the right way, and that student achievement is moving forward as it should, Hyatt said.And the moneyThen there’s the money, Hyatt said. Stone Creek Charter School has 140 students, who are funded by the state at around $6,700 per pupil. That’s around $950,000 the school district isn’t getting in state funding this year. That number would go up if Stone Creek’s enrollment increases, Hyatt said.”ECS as a district, and I personally, support schools of choice, including special programs like expeditionary learning, dual-language and charter schools,” Smyser said. “ECS has no position on whether SCCS should remain in operation or not, and the dedication of the parents is remarkable. Many of those parents have told us that they are closing in December. We are happy to make a new home for the students and would try to accommodate taking whole classes if possible so that they could stay together with their friends as they transition – but we can’t plan effectively when there is no information.”Stone Creek has reduced its expenses, raised some money and said it will make it through the year, the school’s board of directors announced last month.”These are all Eagle County kids. It’s so sad that they can’t get along,” Hyatt said.