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Submit a poorly written college application: expect to be turned away. Send in a job app marked by inattention to detail and lack of coherence: expect a heartbreaking rejection. Institutions of integrity define their standards, in part, by using their discretion to act as gatekeepers.
After thorough review, the Jefferson County Board of Education made a judgment that it was in the best interests of the school district’s families and teachers to deny Great Work Montessori School’s application for a charter. The State Board, on appeal, ordered the district to reconsider and that reconsideration is on the Jeffco Board’s agenda tonight. Taxpayers should take note. Whereas supporters want to see the school as a gift of choice for the underserved population of northeast Lakewood, circumstances suggest that a charter for Great Work may be a gift from Colorado taxpayers to the school privatization initiative of the Walton Family Foundation.
In October, Jeffco’s District Accountability Committee issued an overwhelmingly critical report on Great Work’s August charter application. In 61 pages of review, four bullet points covered the strengths of the proposal. Beyond that, the document enumerated diverse and serious flaws. The scathing, 10 page summary review decried poor scholarship and use of unedited, cut-and-paste boilerplate language from other sources, as well as undemocratic governance, lack of transparency, and forseeable challenges to financial solvency.
In November, the Jeffco Board denied the charter, focusing on policy and budget concerns that hadn’t been resolved. In December, citing only the importance of providing options, the State Board remanded the proposal back to the District, with instructions to collaborate to find a solution.
School choice is a deceptively simple and appealing message, but the matter before the District is complex and fraught. Surely the Board would love to unveil the option of a high quality, developmentally-based school for the underserved children of northeast Lakewood. Their decision not to take on the risks of a project replete with red flags was an exercise in due diligence on behalf of the voters and a demonstration of regard for the fates of children who stand to suffer if their school falters. The State Board is blatantly thumbing its nose at the constitutionally accepted wisdom of local authority. Who benefits if this flawed proposal is authorized?
Credible, public documents show that the Great Work Montessori School (GWMS) and its nexus of support organizations were all established by James Walton, a young director on the board of the Walton Family Foundation, who is not mentioned in the charter application and for whom I once worked as the interim executive director of Great Work, Inc. (I was terminated in May 2016.)
The property that would be leased by public funds is also owned by Mr. Walton. And, contrary to what organizers described in the application as “a local property development group…with a mission to make affordable facilities for schools serving diverse and underserved populations,” that developer incorporated in Delaware and shares a filing address in Bentonville, Arkansas with Walton Enterprises International.
The district accountability committee report revealed this discrepancy, and Mr. Walton wrote an 11th hour letter to the Jeffco Board assuring them he wants a long-lasting and mutually beneficial working relationship.
Whatever the legality and fiscal rationality of the arrangements, here, and without any attempt to impute motives to the actors, it should concern us all that Mr. Walton and his team have gone to such lengths to conceal his role as architect and financier of the entire Great Work charter start-up extravaganza.
If there’s anything to be learned from the recent national election catastrophe, it should be this: extreme concentrations of wealth, expressed as political power, pose a grave threat to democratic systems at all levels of government – particularly when cloaked in language of freedom (choice) and justice (serving the underserved).
If Mr. Walton really wants to create educational options for children in what Great Work Montessori principal Amy Malik has described as “one of the lowest income zip codes in Jeffco,” let us challenge him to help Jeffco start a district-run public option Montessori school in an underutilized building nearby. Fill it with the neighborhood’s children. Govern it democratically. Zip codes aren’t poor; children and families are. We must insist that the community be reflected (rather than fixed) by the proposal.
If the real neighbors of the school have no voice and only a fraction of the classroom seats, we wonder again: Who benefits?
Chris von Lersner, along with three Montessori colleagues and James M. Walton, was one of the original co-founders of the Great Work nexus of enterprises. She is now a resident of Santa Fe, NM.
Photo illustration by Ky via Flickr:Creative Commons