In Colorado Springs School District 11, the board believes in local control at the school level.
It is, perhaps, this philosophy that has led to some problems with the Wasson High School arts magnet a program that the district has now decided may not be a magnet after all. The school decided to dub itself a magnet back in 2005, after building special facilities for arts programs. Wasson also exercised control over its budgets, including the various accounts used to fund the magnet, with minimal district oversight. At recent D-11 school board meetings, that's led to questions.
Here's how board member Bob Null describes the situation: "Who is watching the farm?" he asks. "Right now, I don't think anyone's watching the farm. I'm not sure there is a farm."
What is certain is that magnet students' parents paid a $25 quarterly fee for the program until recently, when it was suspended as the district looked into what, exactly, a magnet is, and whether Wasson's program qualifies. This year, the magnet had 165 students all of whom paid the fee, with the possible exception of those experiencing financial hardship.
The district is conducting an internal audit on Wasson's magnet accounts. So far, officials say the only problem they've found is that the fees haven't all been spent during the school year. That's enough to concern deputy superintendent and chief financial officer Glenn Gustafson, who says further auditing is possible.
"If I was a parent and I am a parent of a child at Palmer I sure would want to make sure that I get $100 worth of goods and services for my $100 fee," Gustafson says.
A closer look reveals further issues. Wasson principal Sean Dorsey, for instance, contends that magnet fees are divvied up among the magnet's "strands" (instrumental music, theater, etc.) according to the number of kids in each. Yet accounting records show that in 2006-07, the art and photo programs received no magnet fees. Photo, apparently, didn't get any for the 2007-08 school year, either.
The Independent asked the district to provide participation numbers for each strand, but did not receive the information by press time. School board members have also requested the numbers.
Magnet fees, special fees and obligations, as well as funds from the Wasson Thunder Booster Club, are put into the "strand" accounts to fund extras in running the magnet: supplies, trips, food. Due to differences in parental and booster support, as well as strand participation, some accounts are bound to be richer than others.
But some discrepancies are stark: In 2006-07, the instrumental (band) account had $12,054.84 in expenditures. The art account: $216.15.
In 2007-08, instrumental spent $10,621.77. Video production: $5.
In addition to issues of fairness, some parents are concerned about how money is used. Should it be spent on food? On paying substitute teachers?
Irked parent Karen Dandino doesn't think so.
"We want our money back," she says flatly.
Gustafson says a district regulation lays out some appropriate expenditures. Student snacks, for instance, are sometimes OK. He acknowledges that other points meals for kids, substitute teacher pay are cloudier.
For his part, Null says, "It needs to be spelled out."
One thing the district is clear on: Most parent fees must be district-approved. It appears Wasson's magnet violated that policy at least once, imposing a band fee without approval.
Superintendent Terry Bishop says one cause of Wasson's problems is that the school has never employed a full-time magnet director. Joe Hansen, the part-time magnet director and band director, recently resigned some say under pressure and accepted a job at Holmes Middle School. Bishop says this should prove "a good move."
"This is only his second year," Bishop notes.
Requiring a full-time director for magnets may be among recommendations of a D-11 committee currently working to define a "magnet school" and set guidelines. Today, the soon-to-be-renamed East Middle School math-science magnet is the only district-approved magnet.
D-11 wants to keep the arts magnet. It attracts students who tend to test well, enticing for a school that's been on academic probation for two years under D-11 accountability guidelines.
The magnet also draws money to the school through the Wasson Thunder Booster Club, whose fundraisers and bingo hall have contributed tens of thousands over the past two years.
Deputy Superintendent Mary Thurman says D-11 wants to improve Wasson's magnet. It actually hopes to put an additional magnet in the school, giving East kids a place to continue the math-science program.
A recommendation on the Wasson math-science magnet will likely be made within a few months.
Breakdown of Wasson arts magnet "strands," and number of students in each
Assessment of health of the magnet and "get-well" plans
Magnet budgets for 2007-08 and 2008-09
Staff support information
Names of who is in charge overall, and of each element
Rules regarding student attendance in arts program activities vs. other courses
Causes and/or rules for student "academic probation"
Involvement of Wasson's arts magnet booster club
J. Adrian Stanley