District nixes charter plans

Proposals for Native, Montessori charter schools dropped without a vote

Posted: Wednesday, January 19, 2000

The Juneau School Board turned down both charter school applications without comment on Tuesday.

School board members later said that neither charter application had made a compelling argument for a new school. Members also were concerned that a charter school would cost the school district funds as it faces a budget crunch.

But the public didn't hear that Tuesday.

A motion by school board member Jeff Bush to approve issuing a charter failed when no member would second it. Bush, who opposes charter schools, made the motion for purposes of discussion. A later motion by Chuck Cohen to consider each charter separately also was not seconded, leaving the board without a procedure to publicly talk about the applications or explain why it rejected them.

Proponents of Montessori and Native-oriented elementary-age programs were vying for the last opening in Juneau for a charter school. Such schools are publicly funded, but are organized by citizens, usually parents, who hire the teachers and set their own curricula.

Phyllis Carlson, who worked on the Native-oriented proposal, said the school board showed a lack of leadership and sent a message to the community by not taking a vote.

``The public felt there should at least be the respect to have a discussion and give an explanation,'' Carlson said.

The state funds charter schools - which in Juneau have been aimed at younger students - at a rate lower than the school district's other elementary students. The school district is concerned that it loses funds because of charter schools.

But Nila Rinehart, one of the Native-oriented school's planners, said it would be cheaper to fund a charter school for young children than to deal with failing older students.

``When you have poor outcomes, where do you place your investment?'' Rinehart asked after the meeting.

Chris Trostel, who teaches at the school district's current Montessori program, said the Montessori applicants have asked the school district to find a way to support their needs if it won't grant a charter.

Montessori supporters have said they wanted a charter school because the current program is restricted by having to work within the schedule at Harborview Elementary School, where it's housed, for arts and gym classes.

They also hoped a federal grant for new charter schools would pay to train Montessori teachers, so the program could grow. Recruiting teachers has been so difficult that the current Montessori parents have raised funds to train a new teacher for next year.

Later in the meeting, school board member Deana Darnall asked district Superintendent Gary Bader to send the applicants a letter of appreciation for their hard work and tell them the school board would be available to ``make their dreams come alive.''

``For lots of reasons we decided not to vote for either one of them, but we should be available to help,'' Darnall said.

Board member Cohen suggested that parents who helped organize the Native-oriented application should get involved in a Tlingit-language immersion program for young children that will start next fall in one of the elementary schools.

Cohen said he didn't want to lose the parental ``buy-in'' that the charter application fostered.

``What's critically important is that the parents don't walk away feeling they've been smacked again,'' he said.

After the meeting, school board members said the Montessori program already exists as a viable alternative, and a Tlingit program slated to start next year, funded through a Sealaska Heritage Foundation grant, will be a step in the right direction.

``To me, it just seemed like we needed a compelling reason to grant a charter,'' said school board member Carolyn Spalding.

Considering the tight budget, Spalding said she couldn't in good conscience provide a charter.

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