Charter barter 

D-11 gives nod to new school, shoots down another

The elected overseers of the city's largest school district took a cautious approach to one of the thorniest issues in public education last month, when they voted to approve one privately run charter school and reject another.

By a 5 to 2 vote, the District 11 board voted on Dec. 21 to begin contract negotiations with the Space, Technology and Arts Academy (STAR), a 350-pupil K-5 charter school slated to open in September.

In a 4 to 3 decision, the board rejected Transition 2 Success, a charter school designed to help 9th- and 10th-graders at risk of dropping out.

A controversial third application that would have opened the district to Internet-based students across Colorado was withdrawn just hours before the scheduled vote.

"At some point in time, you have to look at how many charters a district can have," says board member Sandy Shakes, who opposed the Transition 2 Success application. Two of the district's seven existing charter schools, she notes, were rated as having low or unsatisfactory student performance during the 2004-05 school year.

Privatization of public schools became a flashpoint in last November's contentious school board election, in which a slate of three privatization advocates was defeated.

Sandra Mann, a new board member who voted to approve STAR, says that the board's approach to charter schools was one of "separating the wheat from the chaff." She calls STAR's focus on science, technology and arts, along with its longer school day and school year, "unique and different."

Charter schools receive taxpayer funds but operate privately. They often have been touted as a way for school districts to provide outside-the-box solutions to problems such as dropout rates and minority achievement gaps.

However, new board members John Gudvangen and Tami Hasling voted against STAR. At the meeting, Gudvangen pointed out that if 250 students enrolled there, the district would be handing over $1.2 million a year to a privately run operation, even as enrollment declines district-wide. "There's certainly some heartburn about that," he said.

The seven-member board unanimously supported a measure to require that STAR spend the same percentage of its budget on classroom expenses as the average D-11 school (around 63 percent, as opposed to STAR's initial estimate of around 53 percent).

The concept of putting more resources in the classroom received vocal support from board member Craig Cox at the meeting. "As far as treating all schools the same, amen," he said.

Even more surprising than a unanimous vote from the often-fractious D-11 board was the announcement that a third charter proposal, for the Colorado Distance Education and Learning Academy (CDELA), was yanked earlier that day.

The Internet-based K-12 school received approval last November from Colorado's Charter School Institute, a state agency created in 2004 with authority to authorize charters. But because D-11 applied for and received sole chartering authority over its district that same year, CDELA could not open its headquarters in D-11 without local approval.

The school, with a statewide online learning curriculum, instead will operate out of Brighton School District, north of Denver, says Randy DeHoff, executive director of the state agency.

"It was admittedly a risk," he says about approving the program. It will be run by White Hat Management Company, the same company that founded the Life Skills charter school in D-11 that saw "significant decline" in academic growth over its first year of testing.

"We're certainly more friendly to charter schools [than many school boards]," DeHoff says of the institute's seven-member board of directors, which was appointed by Gov. Bill Owens. But he adds that the agency will be "much more willing to close underperforming charter schools than districts have been."

So far, the agency hasn't closed down any charter schools.

-- Dan Wilcock


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