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.
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.
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