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Fight over charter diversity goes on

Woman objects that school is for 'a group of elite private citizens'

Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2005

The diversity debate that preceded the Juneau School Board's approval of a public Montessori school didn't end with its April 5 vote.

Edith McHenry said Saturday that at this week's board meeting she plans to request a new vote on the charter school and to present resolutions from Native groups opposing it. District enrollment numbers show Alaska Natives are underrepresented in existing Juneau Montessori programs, which encourage children to learn at their own pace.

The next board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.

McHenry said Montessori Borealis Charter School "is for a group of elite private citizens. We are trying to find representation to sue on our behalf."

Resolutions from at least two Native groups, she said, "request they undo what's done."

Money for the charter Montessori would take away money from other students, she said.

The charter school, approved for two years, will receive state money and the minimum amount of city funds under the state's funding formula, according to the school district. Organizers have said they hope to have about 113 students from kindergarten through the ninth grade, possibly along with pre-schoolers.

McHenry also said the April 5 vote on the issue should not count because it was done improperly, with one board member attending the meeting by telephone in Seattle. The woman didn't listen to the entire three-hour debate, McHenry said, and the question passed by one vote.

Board member Rhonda Befort, one of four board members who voted for the school, said she was in Seattle for surgery when the meeting was being held. She didn't listen to the entire debate on her cell phone because she didn't want to drain the battery before the vote.

"I think I've heard everything that was said," Befort said Saturday. "We have spent months and months on the Montessori project. There was no way people's comments were going to change my vote."

The question of diversity was addressed by opponents, and she believes the people behind the Montessori are working to make it more diverse, she added.

"I think the board has been very clear that we expect this to be a program that has diversity," Befort said. A task force is working on a lottery system that would make placement into the program "more fair and equitable," she added.

McHenry questioned how a lottery would help diversity in the program, considering that the 64 current private Montessori students in Juneau would be given priority for the charter, along with their siblings.

Another board member who voted for the school said public concerns about diversity were addressed.

"We built diversity requirements into the charter application," Bill Peters said.

Approval of the Montessori charter doesn't stop other groups from coming to the board with non-traditional programs that could help other students, he said. "I'm open to other opportunities."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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