School Board may decide on charter application Sept. 2

Posted: Monday, August 25, 2003

The Juneau School Board may decide Sept. 2 whether to invest further district staff time on a charter school application by Alyeska Central School, the state-run correspondence school.

The Legislature has said this is the last school year the state will operate Alyeska, which is based in Juneau and employs 26 people.

The state Department of Education and Early Development plans to ask school districts to bid to take over the school, said agency spokesman Harry Gamble. But a committee of school parents and staff also has applied to four districts to accept Alyeska as a charter school.

Charter schools are public schools that have a measure of autonomy from school districts. They usually are governed by committees of parents, and they hire the staff, who must follow the districts' negotiated contracts with unions. Often, the schools must pay for rent and other services from their own budgets. Juneau has one elementary-age charter school with about 60 students.

If the Juneau School District accepted Alyeska's charter application, it would use that as its response to the state bid request, schools Superintendent Peggy Cowan said at a work session last Wednesday.

The school board will decide at its next regular meeting, which is Sept. 2, whether it will direct district staff to respond to a state bid, board President Chuck Cohen said.

Members of Alyeska's Academic Policy Committee said the charter status would let them maintain the program as it is. The committee has applied for charters in Juneau, Wrangell, Delta-Greely and the Yukon-Koyukuk area. The group stipulated in its applications that the staff offices and materials warehouse would remain in Juneau.

So far, only the Juneau district has held a public meeting to gather information.

The accredited correspondence school, which has mostly print-based and some online classes, uses courses largely developed by its own teachers. Its students attend up to 12 months a year, working at their own pace. Parents can get as much or as little help from teachers as they want, down to daily lesson plans.

"The main (benefits) are the teachers," said Sheila Symons, a parent from rural Central on the Academic Policy Committee. "Teachers are certified in every subject, so they know what they're talking about."

At the School Board's work session last week, board members praised Alyeska's program but were concerned about its finances as a charter school. If the district takes over Alyeska, it will face pressure to maintain the program even if enrollments decline.

"The Juneau School District doesn't have the ability to lose money supporting a program that doesn't make it on its own," Cohen said in an interview. "If it fails, it would be very hard to let it go down the tube."

If enrollments went down and the staff size was correspondingly cut, the program may no longer have the variety of classes that attracts students, board member Alan Schorr said last Wednesday.

Alyeska, which enrolls part-time and full-time students, had the equivalent of about 720 full-time students last school year. It also typically enrolls several hundred tuition-paying students who generally take one or two courses each.

As of last week, Alyeska had enrolled the equivalent of 483 full-time students. About 115 Juneau children are part-time or full-time students. Staff members said student numbers usually grow through September and even into October, but they expect this year's to level off at about 625 students.

Alyeska is funded by the same state "foundation formula" that all Alaska correspondence programs are funded at, which is 80 percent of the per-student rate for regular schools. It also garners some grants and receives some tuition. It always has paid for itself, staff members said.

Charter schools also are funded at 80 percent of the regular per-student rate. But as a charter school, Alyeska will have to pay for some items, such as office space or some types of insurance, that it hasn't faced as a state entity. And the fee charged by the district for administrative services such as payroll may be higher than what the school now pays the state.

If the district accepts the charter, the Alyeska staff would have to work out with Juneau's teachers and support staff unions where they would be placed on the salary schedules, which reward employees for years of experience. That's a key issue because salaries and benefits are a big part of any school's budget.

Board President Cohen asked Alyeska's Academic Policy Committee to seek help in preparing a business plan from an organization such as the Juneau Economic Development Council. Committee members agreed to do so.

Cohen said in an interview that keeping Alyeska in Juneau is an economic development issue the community should be involved in. The 26 jobs are the equivalent of a medium-sized business.

"Here there's a potential capital creep where there's an opportunity for a participatory effort," Cohen said. Capital creep refers to the gradual movement of state jobs from Juneau.

Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch of Juneau said he has been talking to people in the community about the issue.

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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