EDITORIAL: Valentine’s Day for the Charter School? Part One

As Valentine’s Day approaches, we prepare ourselves, mentally, for the event. Will our partner surprise us? Do we even have a partner?

Will it be a day of celebration? A day of depression?

Eight months ago — back in June, 2016 — we ran a nine-part editorial series summarizing the process that the Pagosa Charter School Initiative had been using to draft a 452-page Charter School application, to be submitted to the Archuleta School District by August 1.

A team of volunteers — mostly young mothers with preschool-age children — had been working on the application for about 18 months, and had settled on an innovative (but increasingly popular) educational model called Project Based Learning. The team planned to blend that model with another innovative learning tool known as Place Based Education — and create a school that operated much more democratically than what is typical in American public schools. More as a “community of learners,” you might say, instead of as an academic assembly line.

The process continues to unfold. The innovative school has scored a suitable (albeit unusual) location in the Aspen Village subdivision; three ‘Open Enrollment’ presentations have generated a fair number of enrollment applications; the board has begun receiving applications for the school director position and for the various teaching positions; a $405,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Education is approved.

Just one little catch. The School District, as the authorizer of the new school, has not yet signed the required charter contract.

That confirming action might take place at the School Board’s regular monthly meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, February 14. Valentine’s Day.

Or it might not.

The Open School founding board has their fingers crossed.

Even though the Colorado state legislature had passed its Charter Schools Act in 1993 with the intention of encouraging publicly-funded charter schools to open and thrive in every community in the state, Archuleta School District had never, in the ensuing 23 years, been presented with an actual charter school application — until they received the application for Pagosa Peak Open School on August 1, 2016. A vetting process followed, during which the 452-page application was reviewed by members of the School Board, the District Accountability Committee, and interested members of the public — leading up to an October 24 community meeting at the high school, where concerned citizens spoke in support of the proposed school, or raised questions about the school’s viability.

The Archuleta School Board met on November 14, 2016 and approved the charter school application for the Pagosa Peak Open School — with conditions.

The School Board voted unanimously to approve the application for Pagosa Peak Open School on November 14, 2016. That approval, however, unilaterally imposed certain conditions on the new school — conditions that the School Board felt would increase the chances of the school’s ultimate success.

In the eyes of the Open School founding board, one of those conditions was particularly onerous. The Open School was required to raise an extra $175,000 in grants and donations, beyond what was stated in the charter application’s five-year budget. And they were required to raise that amount prior to opening the school’s doors in September 2017.

The school’s five-year budget had been given a stamp of approval by the Colorado League of Charter Schools, and by the Colorado Department of Education. But for their own reasons, the Archuleta School Board judged the proposed budget to be inadequate.

According to Colorado law, when a school board refuses to authorize a new charter school — or when they impose unilateral conditions — the charter school is allowed to appeal the decision to the State Board of Education. This begins a lengthy legal process that can ultimately result in the local school district losing its rights to serve as a charter school authorizer.

Pagosa Peak Open School chose not to appeal the imposition of the $175,000 requirement, because the founding board believed this onerous condition could be negotiated during the next stage in the process: the writing of the Charter Contract. Colorado state law requires a school district to sign this contract within 90 days of approving the charter application. 90 days would have been yesterday, February 12.

The School Board has scheduled a discussion and possible approval of the charter contract for tomorrow.

Valentine’s Day.

The negotiations between the attorneys for the two parties — the Archuleta School District and the Pagosa Peak Open School founding board — have thus far left the $175,000 requirement in place, in the District’s version of the proposed contract. The Open School founding board is still hoping for a more acceptible contract.

A work session took place on Thursday at the School District administration building, during which the Open School board made its case for reducing the amount of additional funding required — or, alternately, for giving the new school three years to raise the required amount. Two School Board members — Greg Schick and Brooks Lindner — attended that work session.

The School Board has scheduled a possible executive session for Tuesday, February 14 at 5pm, just prior to their regular meeting at the Middle School Library.

From the District website:

The Board will go into the Administration Office Conference room, located at 309 Lewis Street, and go into executive session pursuant to C.R.S. 24-6-402(e) to discuss a matter subject to negotiations with the Pagosa Peak Open School Charter School. During the executive session the Board will be holding a phone conference with the District’s Attorneys regarding these negotiations.

Relationships are complicated. We understand that. The two parties will always have conflicting desires, along with their shared goals. So long as the shared goals are the dominant force on the relationship — and so long as a sense of love and affection remain, and lines of communication are open — the relationship can continue.

When the conflicts become central, we have to wonder where things are headed.

Read Part Two…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.