On the same night the Jefferson County Board of Education began plans to close five schools to make up a multi-million budget shortfall, it also gave conditional approval to a charter school that some board members criticized as financially unsustainable.
The Jeffco board has twice rejected Great Work Montessori’s charter application. The charter board appealed to the Colorado State Board of Education after the first ‘no’ and the board ordered that Jeffco reconsider.
Jeffco Board President Ron Mitchell said during last night’s meeting that after the second ‘no,’ lawyers for the school board and the charter stepped in and continued to negotiate.
With the clock ticking – the charter had 30 days to appeal the second rejection – the school board last night presented a new set of conditions that Great Work must meet in order to open next fall.
Chief among them: much higher numbers for enrollment and letters of intent to enroll. The board voted unanimously for conditional approval, based on the charter’s ability to prove it can bring in the number of students necessary to make the school financially viable.
“We will hold them accountable for those numbers,” Mitchell told The Colorado Independent Friday.
The board has good reason to be insistent. Nine of the 16 charter schools in Jefferson County have opened with fewer than the number of students needed to be financially sustainable, and the school district has had to bail them out with loans, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. All of the loans have since been repaid, according to district officials.
The Great Work Montessori School is to be based in east Lakewood, a few blocks south of the intersection of West Alameda and South Sheridan. In its application, school leadership projects an enrollment of 270 students in PreK through eighth grade. In the first year the school would open for PreK through third grade and add a grade every year thereafter.
Great Work has been controversial from the beginning. The charter school is backed by the Walton Family Foundation, which was started by Walmart founder Sam Walton. Companies controlled by Walton’s grandson James Walton, the charter’s founder, own the land that the school will be built on and eventually, the building itself.
The school board has opposed the Great Work application based on its belief that the school’s finances are unsustainable. The charter application explained that the school is expected to receive a $250,000 grant from the Walton Foundation, and that a third of the school’s budget is dependent on full tuition paid by families whose children attend the early childhood education program, basically a private preschool, which is allowed under state law. That tuition would be about $1,500 per month, though the charter is intended to serve low-income families in east Lakewood.
The charter backers argued the school would provide Montessori education in an area that has none. However, Denver Public Schools has a Montessori school that accepts Jefferson County students and is about a mile away. In addition, a private PreK Montessori school, Little Lyceum, is just three blocks away.
Under the new agreement, the charter must collect 120 intent-to-enroll letters from families who want to put their kids in the schools’ pre-K program, and 206 intent letters for kindergarten through third grade. About 137 K-3 students would have to enroll for the school to open.
Jeffco officials said last month that the norm for a charter school is a 50 percent attrition rate between the numbers of letters of intent and actual enrollment.
Great Work has until April 1 to meet its letter of intent and enrollment targets. “We are so grateful for the unanimous support of the Jeffco board and staff,” said Great Work “head of school” Amy Malick, in a statement to The Independent. ”We are honored to be part of an amazing district and to provide a new choice to the families in our community.”
Photo courtesy Jefferson County School District