Charter school looks to win review from new Doug Co school board

The Douglas County Board of Education election, it seems, still isn’t over.

Early this week, Douglas County informed the Douglas County School District that it would not be able to certify the election in time to swear in the new slate of charter school-friendly, Republican-backed, “reform” candidates for the next board meeting.

Mark Baisley, Douglas County GOP Vice-Chair and STEM High Board President

Mark Baisley, Douglas County GOP Vice-Chair and STEM High Board President

On Wednesday, a request was made to remove a key issue from that next meeting.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) High, a proposed Republican-promoted charter school, formally asked the Douglas County School District to postpone the decision to accept or reject the charter school’s application until the board’s Dec. 1 meeting.

STEM High’s board chairman is Mark Baisley, who was also one of the strongest backers of the new charter-friendly candidates elected to the board. Baisley is also the vice-chair of the Douglas County Republican Party, which also campaigned heavily for the new “reform” slate.

Baisley said STEM High requested the extension because it felt the school board needed more time to respond to feedback, some of which it received late.

“There are two sections [the board] gave us just recently, that were not given to us in the timing that’s agreed to,” said Baisley. “We’re not certainly complaining about that. We just needed more time to respond to these delayed requests in the area of the finance section and legal section.”

The district has not yet decided whether it will postpone the charter school decision, according to spokeswoman Susan Meek.

Technically a non-partisan race, the Douglas County Board of Education election was oddly marked out by the local GOP and its supports as a crucial political battle. The school board campaign featured an intense robocall and email push that, on deeply tenuous grounds, tied the candidates backed by the Douglas County Federation of Teachers to conservative hot-button groups and topics like the AFL-CIO, ACORN and President Obama’s health care reform. Two of the Federation-endorsed candidates, however, were longtime and active Republican Party members and are now disgusted by the politics that characterized the race. Colorado Ethics Watch filed a complaint against GOP-endorsed candidate Meghann Silverthorn, a Department of Defense employee, for violating the Hatch Act, which forbids government workers from running for partisan office.

Old board members who thought they had put the school board election and its ugly politics behind them found out this week that they might be required to attend one more meeting. According to Meek, Douglas County has said it won’t be able to certify the election until November 19 — two days after the next scheduled board meeting. By Wednesday, it appeared the district had decided to have the old board preside over the Nov. 17 meeting, and to swear the new board in at the Dec. 1 meeting.

Whichever board meets Nov. 17 is scheduled to vote on the STEM High application. Originally, it had appeared that the old board would preside over the proposed charter school’s review process and that the new board would vote on the issue.

Modeled on the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Fairfax, Va., STEM promises to set a “higher, more rigorous standard” and to focus on “basic skills in reading, writing, communication, math and critical thinking as the tools to success in later learning, life and work.” Partner high-tech companies will maintain a permanent presence on the school campus in order to “demonstrate how theory becomes profitable, applied science.”

At the most recent public hearing for the school, on Nov. 3, school district staff  indicated(pdf) that they had several areas of significant concern with the STEM application.

District staff noted, for example, that “the budget does not seem to align with the instructional approach,” pointing out that the proposed budget for technology and computers did not seem adequate to support a STEM school. Staff also pointed out that grant funding for the school was not substantiated “to any degree,” but that the school budget was not workable without such funding. Staff also noted that the school, in its budget, had assumed that the district would offer it a $100,000 line of credit, but that the Board of Education had not approved any such loan.

On the academic side, staff also noted, among other concerns, that the application had no reference to fine arts, a state requirement; that its proposed number of “highly qualified teachers” did not meet No Child Left Behind requirements; and that the applicant had proposed a graduation rate that did not meet the district’s current graduation rate.

In addition, letters of support for a 9th-grade start-up in the 2010-2011 school year were insufficient, and that there was no plan for increasing enrollment.

District spokeswoman Meek, however, said that it is common for charter schools to receive considerable feedback at their public hearings. Meek characterized the district’s feedback as “neither more than average nor less.”

This week, the school turned in the last pieces of its revised plan for review by staff, according to Meek. On Wednesday, however, it requested that its final hearing be postponed until the Dec. 1 meeting.

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Katie Redding

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