Rejected Jeffco charter gets second chance from state board of education

Rejected Jeffco charter gets second chance from state board of education

Great Work Montessori School, a proposed preK-8 charter whose application was rejected last month by the Jefferson County Board of Education, has been revived by the Colorado Board of Education.

The state board voted 5-2 this morning to grant the charter’s appeal, and told the Jeffco board to reconsider Great Work’s application.

Voting yes: Republicans Steve Durham, Joyce Rankin, Pam Manzanec and Debora Scheffel, and Democrat Angelika Schroeder. Voting against, Democrats Jane Goff and Val Flores.

Scheffel will be replaced by Democrat Rebecca McClellan next month.

The Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation’s biggest players in the effort to privatize public education, has pledged $250,000 to launch Great Work. The school would serve pre-K to 8th grade students. Under its proposal, the charter would open next fall with pre-kindergarteners to third-graders, gradually adding grades in future years. The initial enrollment is projected to be at least 270 students. Parents of pre-K students would pay tuition ranging from $50 to $1,500 per month, depending upon household incomes.

Related: Jeffco school board to look at Walton Foundation-backed charter

The Great Work board appealed the decision to the state board of education on Nov. 4, the day after the Jeffco board voted 3-2 to turn down the charter’s application. The school board turned down the application largely based on concerns about the charter’s business model. The school’s budget planned to rely partly on grants and tuition, up to $1,500 per month, from parents of pre-K students, to subsidize the school’s facilities, administrative costs and to pay for some of the school’s K-8 staff. That’s not a sustainable business model, the school board said, because grants are “soft,” meaning they aren’t a guaranteed source of annual funding.

Related: Jeffco board rejects Walton-backed charter school

The Jeffco board now has 30 days to reconsider its decision.

According to Ron Mitchell, chair of the Jeffco board, the state school board’s decision requires his board to work with the Great Work board to see if there’s a resolution to the budget concerns. “That does not mean we have to accept the application,” Mitchell told The Colorado Independent  Thursday.

The business model isn’t the only thing that concerns the Jeffco board. “The real issue is the number of students to be enrolled,” Mitchell said.

The application originally said the school would eventually enroll 350, then revised it downward to 270. Yet the school could only produce 124 letters of interest for the Nov. 3 school board meeting. According to school board members, the school would need at least 140 students to open and eventually at least 250 to operate sustainably.

Even at 270 students, Great Work would be among the smallest charter schools in the county. Doral Academy, approved in 2015 by the conservative majority on the Jeffco school board, which was later recalled, estimated it would enroll 274 students and so far has only 154.

“We don’t have any verification of those commitments,” Mitchell said, adding that the state board of education will allow the Jeffco school board to request verification of Great Work’s enrollment commitments.

“The simple goal,” Mitchell said, is to find out if the charter is financially viable or not. “I think it’s a valid question and concern for us, to open a school and make sure it is fiscally sound.”

In their appeal, Great Work’s board said the Jeffco board denied the application based on unfounded concerns about the charter’s proposed budget and financial stability. The appeal, submitted by attorney William Bethke, who represents several charter schools in Jefferson County, said that the district was concerned that Great Work relied too much on “soft money,” such as grants and tuition from its preschool, rather than state and local funding.

The preschool would have charged its students tuition up to $1,500 per month, and indicated that at least one-third of the preschool students would have to pay full tuition in order for the school to be financially stable.

In their appeal, the charter’s board said the proposed budget was sound and had “contingency plans in place in case these funds are not realized.” The charter was in line for a $250,000 grant from the Walton Foundation, which was started by Walmart founder Sam Walton, with the grant contingent on the application’s approval by Jeffco. A second grant was anticipated from the state Department of Education through its Colorado Charter Schools Program (CCSP). The charter received notice it had been award the CCSP grant on Nov. 4. Knowing that the charter was likely to obtain the grant, the school board should have approved the application, the appeal said.

The appeal also claimed that Jeffco district staff failed to distinguish between the  budget and staffing of the K-8 portion of the school and the budget and staffing of the tuition-paid preschool.  

The Great Work Montessori budget, the appeal said, “is conservative and appropriate for the school, which benefits financially from a partnership with a tuition-based preschool which will subsidize much of the facility and administrative costs for [Great Work] and which also will contribute to the cost of some teaching staff,” particularly at the kindergarten level. The district, according to the appeal, fails to acknowledge that funding from the preschool will “fully provide for the costs, support and staffing necessary.”

In its response to the appeal, Jefferson County School District said Great Work “disproportionately allocated its total expenses to the ECE Program (the preschool). This gave the perception of a balanced budget for the K-8 Program. In reality, the K-8 Program will operate at a significant budget deficit for the duration of its charter.”

Jeffco also noted in its response that, had “reliance on the CCSP Grant been the only concern with Great Work’s budget,” the district board might have approved the application. “As outlined herein, however, the lack of transparency on K-8 Program expenses also was a basis for the denial.”

Amy Malick, Great Work’s head of school, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Jeffco school board’s next regularly-scheduled meeting is set for Jan. 12, 2017.

 

Photo credit of Jefferson County Public Schools

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About the Author

Marianne Goodland

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.

6 Comments

  1. Kids First on said:

    What an incredibly one-sided article? Shouldn’t the Jeffco board be focusing on the underserved students in Edgewater who don’t have any high-quality public school options vs. playing politics. Shame on the CO Independent for being a biased mouthpiece.

  2. Juanita Valero on said:

    I so appreciate that you’re following this, but the neutrality of the presentation is concerning. Sometimes neutrality serves to mask corruption and deceit. I think you are missing the real story here. This school is young James Walton’s baby. He hired the principal to write the charter app. He purchased and owns the property that the school’s board testified they were “lucky” enough to negotiate a good lease agreement on. The DAC excoriated the charter team for the poor quality of the application, which is not only bad, but it’s now over 800 pages of bad writing, riddled with errors (more than twice as long as a high average anthropology dissertation). The Jeffco board is aware of all this, but also aware that if they come out hard against privatization, they will be run out of office. (The Walton’s already own the DPS board. Jeffco will fall soon enough.) They deftly – and rightly – denied the charter on the grounds that its budget is implausible and not fully transparent. What does the state board do? They tell Jeffco that Great Work doesn’t need to hire janitors: the teachers can clean the school. One board member said she used to chop wood for her grandmother’s school when she was a child. Really? That’s how the State Board of Ed is going to make a case for funding a billionaire’s first foray into privatization … one that can’t prove it can make ends meet? Follow Great Work’s and James Walton’s story and there is no way to justify authorizing this group. But the Walton’s get what the Waltons want, and nobody dares to call them out. I want to hear the Colorado Independent stand up to this. All of Jeffco should stand up to this. The Waltons want government out of education, and they’re using the promise of “choice” to get the citizens to demand it. Dan Mc Minnimee ought to call Mr. Walton’s bluff. If James Walton wants a Montessori school in Jeffco, he ought to write a check to the district and let this scrappy little bunch open a school within a school somewhere where they’re not lining the Waltons’ pockets and making teachers mop floors and clean bathrooms to make ends meet. C’mon Jeffco. Speak up against Wal-Mart Montessori! (http://carecoloradokids.org/jeffco/attention-colorado-shoppers-price-check-on-great-work/ https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2016/11/02/james-walton-paid-a-consultant-to-create-a-colorado-charter-school/ https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/denver-advisory-committee-trashes-great-work-charter-application/ https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/when-it-comes-to-colorado-montessori-james-walton-is-calling-the-hots/ https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/colorado-james-walton-fund-is-looking-for-an-education-director/)

  3. Lisa on said:

    As a Jeffco parent who supports choice, I have serious concerns about the proposed charter’s budget. I attended the meeting where they voted to deny approval, and the reality was that the charter school isn’t financially ready yet. Malick was convinced she could get more grants somewhere, and while I appreciate her passion, it’s just not that easy. Real students will be affected if they can’t find the money after all, and frankly, I don’t know a lot of families who can afford $1500 a month for preschool. It’s extremely difficult, even under the most optimal conditions to have a school whose goal is to serve low-income populations but who simultaneously needs to attract a sizable number of high-income families to fund the budget. Board members agreed that Edgewater would benefit from a Montessori option, but the budget needs to be sustainable. Hopefully they’ll come back to the board with major improvements in their budget numbers and expectations.

  4. Henry on said:

    Typical Marianne type article. Not sure how giving 250,000 to a public school is privatizing, but I’m sure Marianne can fabricate a link somehow.

    And Juanita, I am so impressed that you are willing to sacrifice the education of low income Hispanic children to your quest of trying to prove an evil empire. You are tilting at windmills at the expense of our most under-served families. Shame Shame.

    The real story is that a school is trying to serve our neediest kids but struggling to put a financial program in place. Hope fully the can figure it out so these low income kids can have the same choices offered to middle and upper class white folks. Hey…maybe Marianne and Juanita could show some character and donate funds or services to these needy families.

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