The Jefferson County Board of Education will vote Thursday on whether to approve a new charter school in east Lakewood. But unlike charter approvals in the past two years, this one is on the receiving end of more scrutiny from the board. And on Saturday, an advisory committee charged with reviewing the application issued a highly-critical report that cited everything from serious financial concerns to a demonstration of poor writing skills by the school’s founders.
It’s no longer business as usual in Jefferson County education.
A year ago, voters in Jefferson County threw out three conservative members of the school board, and the other two non-conservative members chose not to run for re-election. The board voted in last November was dubbed the “clean sweep:” five new members, all backed by teacher and parent groups upset over the direction of the school board during the previous two years.
The board’s concerns about the proposed charter school’s ties to one of the wealthiest families in the country – the Waltons of Walmart – may be one of the clearest signs of that clean sweep.
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 Montessori School. The school would serve pre-K to 8th grade students. If the Jeffco school board signs off, 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.
Earlier this month, members of the board of the proposed charter school and its incoming Head of School Amy Malick presented their application to the board.
They ran into a wall of skepticism from the school board, and now, from a district accountability committee.
School board president Ron Mitchell told the proposed charter school leadership that he does not “support national chains,” referring to the charter’s ties to the Walton Foundation. Mitchell also said that he felt support for the charter “is not as local and grassroots as I had hoped.”
Charter schools in Colorado are supposed to be parent-driven. The Great Work Montessori charter school board is currently comprised of two parents and three other community members.
“I want greater parental involvement,” school board member Brad Rupert told the charter board.
School board members Ali Lasell and Amanda Stevens had questions about the charter school’s budget and financial information, particularly since school representatives said that at least one-third of the students in pre-K and kindergarten will have to pay full tuition in order to make the budget work.
The neighborhood in which Great Work Montessori would be located, just west of South Sheridan and south of West Alameda in east Lakewood, is largely low-income with a high number of students in the local public schools on free or reduced lunch programs.
How then, Stevens asked, will the school, which will have lottery-based admissions, meet both its budget demands and draw a sufficiently diverse population.
Malick said the school prizes diversity and would adjust the lottery accordingly to give low-income students extra chances of qualifying for enrollment.
Mitchell said he was concerned that the charter was too reliant on grants for its support because grants don’t provide a long-term revenue stream. He also told The Independent that he had concerns about the transparency of the charter as it pertains to its connections with the Walton Foundation.
Many of these concerns were echoed in the report issued Saturday by the District Accountability Committee, a group of about two dozen parents, school and community representatives that provides advisory input on district matters, including charter school applications. The 10-page report contained a half-page devoted to citing a handful of benefits of the charter (it would provide Montessori education to those who would not normally have that access), and eight pages outlined concerns about budget, transparency, academics and governance.
The Walton Foundation says it has provided grants to one-quarter of the nation’s charter schools. In Colorado, the foundation, which has an office in Cherry Creek, gave $8 million in 2012 alone for charter schools and other educational reforms in Jefferson County and to Denver Public Schools. That includes Jeffco’s Compass Montessori, which received $225,597 from 2012 through 2015 from the foundation. The foundation also is supporting a middle school for the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, planned for next year.
Great Work Montessori is part of a trio of separate, but related Walton-backed educational facilities in Jefferson County that includes Great Work Montessori Learning Community, a private preschool and kindergarten in Edgewater that opened in June. The other is Great Works, Inc., a proposed Montessori-certified teacher-training academy, launched by James Walton, a Colorado resident and grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
A Walton Foundation spokesperson told The Independent that all of the Great Work organizations are separate entities with their own nonprofit statuses. But the relationship between the numerous entities raised eyebrows with the DAC, which recommended “additional discussion to define distinct boundaries to ensure legal compliance with Colorado statute.”
According to an archived version of Great Work, Inc.’s website, James Walton, together with Compass Montessori faculty, came up with the idea for the proposed elementary/middle school charter now before the Jeffco School Board. The school, Malick told The Independent, was in response to parents who wanted their children to be able to continue a Montessori education beyond what would be offered at the Great Work Montessori Learning Community private preschool and kindergarten.
Malick said the Walton Foundation will have no involvement with the proposed elementary and middle Montessori school beyond the $250,000 grant. But a review of state records by The Independent suggests a more complicated relationship.
According to the charter application, James Walton’s Great Work, Inc. paid for the proposed charter school’s land, and is negotiating its development with yet another company tied to the Walton Foundation — TGNA — which holds title to the land for the proposed charter, and also owns the private preschool’s land and building.
TGNA is described in the charter application as “a local property development group with a mission to make affordable facilities for schools serving diverse and underserved populations.”
Malick told the Jeffco board on Oct. 6 that TGNA is a nonprofit. But no nonprofit with that name is listed with the Secretary of State’s business database, which shows all companies that legally operate in Colorado. There also is no listing for a TGNA with the state’s largest nonprofit organization, the Colorado Association of Nonprofit Organizations.
However, records filed with the Secretary of State do list a TGNA Holdings, a company named among the holdings of The Walton Family Foundation-owned Great Work Education Holdings. TGNA Holdings isn’t a nonprofit; its filings show it is a foreign limited liability company (LLC). By definition, a foreign limited liability company is one that has been formed in one state but conducts business in another state.
TGNA Holdings’ track record in Colorado so far shows two buildings: ownership of the private Montessori preschool in Edgewater, and a home listed at 1598 Ingalls Street, right across the street from the preschool. The latter property is listed as either bank-owned or in foreclosure, and according to the Jefferson County Treasurer, its 2015 property taxes are delinquent and an auction for the taxes was scheduled for October 19. Secretary of State records also show the address for the proposed charter as 6001 W. 16th Avenue, Lakewood, the same address as the private preschool.
The Independent asked the charter board in an email if it had checked TGNA’s references or could cite another school that the company had worked on, either in Colorado or nationwide. The board responded that it did “due diligence in researching and selecting vendors throughout our application process. We chose to work with TGNA based on their commitment to serving the educationally disadvantaged population through facility support. We feel fortunate to have negotiated such a favorable lease arrangement.”
James Walton’s Great Work, Inc., TGNA, and another similarly-titled company, Great Work Education Holdings, are listed in state records at the same addresses: 1112 Washington Ave., Suite 200, in Golden; at the Walton Family Foundation location in Denver (44 Cook Street) or at the Walton Enterprises address in Bentonville, Arkansas (P.O. Box 1860).
The DAC report also noted the charter ties to the Walton Foundation through TGNA Holdings, LLC, noting: “This relationship was not previously disclosed.”
Between 2013 and 2015, according to Walton Foundation spokesperson Daphne Moore, the foundation gave $1.48 million to Great Work, Inc., and another $1.78 million to Great Work Education Holdings.
The foundation’s investment in Great Work, Inc. supports teacher training and the development of tools to measure student growth, Moore said. The investments in Great Work Education Holdings, which, she says, is the single owner of TGNA, go to various projects, “including the development of facilities for various nonprofit organizations such as schools.”
Despite the overlapping relationships, the board emphasized in a response to questions from The Independent that Great Work Montessori “is a stand-alone, grassroots charter public school that does not have any type of management organization.”
There is no agenda, it said, “other than to provide a high-quality, public charter school Montessori in an area that does not currently have such an option.”
The DAC’s report also cited the application’s poor demonstration of its authors’ writing skills. “Writing is an essential skill for college and career readiness. Strong writing skills are also aligned with Jeffco’s 2020 Vision Goals. This proposal shows critical writing flaws. It’s [sic] bulk size, frequent typos, insertion of other school district names, and inconsistencies between sections suggest many writers may have been involved. Authors possibly utilized ‘cut-and-paste’ boilerplate.” The report also pointed out numerous inaccurate citations in the application, stating “This was disconcerting from academic leadership for a proposal to start a school.”
The Jeffco school board meets at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3 at the district’s offices at 1829 Denver West Boulevard, Golden.