Lessons in complexity

2012-09-30T16:00:00Z 2012-10-01T10:40:40Z Lessons in complexityBy Raju Woodward, Corvallis Gazette-Times Albany Democrat Herald
September 30, 2012 4:00 pm  • 

After the Philomath School Board voted to close Kings Valley School in early 2001 due to budgetary reasons, community members rallied to save the small, rural school.

Just months later, in September 2001, Kings Valley Charter School opened its doors, and with the support of the Philomath School District, it has thrived.

The district provided more funding than required by state law and added high school grades. The school’s enrollment grew and it has received high marks from the state.

If this sounds like a model relationship between a charter school and its sponsoring district, flash forward to the summer of 2012: that’s when Kings Valley sued the district, arguing that the district had withheld some of the money it was owed due to its status as a rural school. The district then accused the school of violating its charter agreement by getting permission to contract with a nonprofit group to hire teachers outside the state system as a way of avoiding paying into the Pubic Employees Retirement System. As a result, the district issued a notice that it intended to terminate the school’s charter.

For the past three months, both sides have met to try to resolve their issues, but the situation appear to be moving toward mediation.

The dispute between Kings Valley Charter School and the Philomath School District offers some insights into the  complex and sometimes tense relationship between charter schools and their sponsoring districts – and each charter school in the mid-valley offers a different take on that relationship.

State’s oldest charter

Oregon’s charter school law was passed in May 1999. Oregon was the 38th state to enact such a law. As of April 2012, 41 states and the District of Columbia have similar laws.

Lourdes Public Charter School in Scio was the first charter school in Oregon, opening in September 1999. At the start of the 2012-13 school year, Oregon had 123 charter schools.

Six charter schools operate in Linn and Benton counties, and a seventh school is working on getting approval through Greater Albany Public Schools.

Crystal Greene of the Oregon Department of Education said that one of the main differences between regular schools and charter schools is that charter schools are semi-autonomous.

“Charter schools are released from some laws and granted some additional flexibility,” Greene said. “But they have to operate within their charter agreements.”

Linda Duman, administrator at Lourdes, said one of the most prevalent misconceptions about charter schools is that they are private schools. They are public.

Scio School District Superintendent Gary Tempel said that charter schools help fill niches, such as providing a closer alternative for students in rural areas or offering a specialized focus, such as arts. They also are meant to serve as laboratories for innovative approaches to education.

Tension common

Tempel said that no matter the relationship between districts and charter schools, there’s always some inherent tension.

“It’s a parent-child relationship,” Tempel said. “Sometimes I don’t think they always like that, especially when they are trying to grow.”

He said that enrollment and funding are common points of contention.

A district with declining enrollment might get heartburn if it sees its charter schools enjoying enrollment increases – and with school budgets under increasing pressure, many charter schools are lobbying for a greater slice of state funding dollars.

The funding conflict between Kings Valley and the Philomath School District, for example, hinges on an interpretation of a bill passed by the Legislature in 2011. The question essentially boils down to whether the charter school should get all of the roughly $300,000 additional funding from the state based on the school’s status as a “remote elementary school.”

Kings Valley officials say they should receive all the money. Philomath School District officials say they have the discretion to choose how to distribute the money.

Dan Hays, director of Muddy Creek Charter School, agrees that there’s always underlying tension between charter schools and their sponsoring districts.

Muddy Creek is sponsored by the Corvallis School District, and is the area’s newest charter school, having opened in 2008 at the former Inavale School location.

“It’s unavoidable,” Hays said. “Especially when it comes to funding. Frankly, in private there are times when I think we deserve more money than we are getting.”

At the same time, Hays understands the issues on both sides. He spent 34 years as a teacher and administrator with the Corvallis School District, the past 10 years as principal of Lincoln K-8 School.

“You don’t want to add to and stir the pot too much,” Hays said. “especially when you have a good relationship. You want to avoid conflict like the plague because you don’t want want to jeopardize things.”

Mark Hazelton, director of Kings Valley Charter School, has another theory about why tension may exist between districts and charter schools.

“I think there can be a sense of resentment,” Hazelton said. “It’s a lot of work for a district to sponsor a charter school, especially in the beginning. There’s processes and timelines they have to follow. Nobody likes having to do more work when they are already working hard.”

Duman of Lourdes and Mary Northern, director of operations of Sand Ridge Charter School and Sweet Home Charter School, said that they don’t think there needs to be any animosity toward charter schools.

“If you stop thinking about things in terms of dollar signs and focus on coming together for the children,” Northern said. “then you see we are working toward the same thing: to help them learn.”

Making it work

Many local district and charter school officials say they have positive relationships with each other, despite reduced state funding in recent years that increases the financial pressure.

The Scio School District sponsors Lourdes and Oregon Connections Academy,  an online charter school that serves students throughout the state. Tempel said that the district has a good relationship with both schools.

“There’s high expectations on both sides,” Tempel said. “We want them to be the best schools they can be and serve their students’ needs.”

Both Duman and Todd Miller, executive director of Oregon Connections Academy, said that the Scio School District does a good job of getting back to them with answers to questions and updates on changes at the state level.

Hays summed up his thoughts on Muddy Creek’s relationship with the Corvallis School District by sharing a story.

The school, he said, made its annual presentation to the Corvallis School Board on Sept. 24 and got rave reviews:  “They were generous, supportive and collaborative. I felt they accept us, are anxious to help us and eager to see us succeed. I’m thrilled.”

Kevin Bogatin, the assistant superintendent of the Corvallis School District, said he values Muddy Creek.

“Not all students can thrive in the traditional school setting,” Bogatin said. “Charter schools provide another choice for families and students. Muddy Creek has done a great job.”

Northern described Sand Ridge’s relationship with Lebanon Community Schools as exceptional. She praised superintendent Rob Hess and other district employees for their support.

Even Hazelton said that his school and the Philomath School District have worked well together in the past.

For example, he noted the work that the district’s specialists do with the school’s special education students and how accepting Philomath athletics teams are of students from Kings Valley.

Communication is key

A common theme emerges when talking to charter school and district officials: The importance of talking with and listening to each other.

“It really is that simple,” Tempel said. “Communication makes all the difference.”

“It begins and ends with communication,” Northern said. “You have to educate people about what you are doing and show them you are doing things right.”

Tempel and Miller meet weekly to discuss topics from finances to curriculum. Other schools communicate with their sponsoring district on a “as-needed ” basis.

“That openness to share information with each other is crucial,” Bogatin said. “We count on them and they count on us. Working together is the only way to make sure students’ needs are met.”

Hazelton, who is invited to report to the Philomath School Board each month, said he appreciates the opportunity.

“I think we are fairly unique in that regard that we are asked to make a report at every board meeting,” Hazelton said. “I think that’s very important.”

One thing both Philomath School District and Kings Valley Charter School representatives agree on is that the communication between them must improve.

“Look, I’ll be the first to admit we’ve been lax when it comes to communication,” said Rick Wells, chairman of the Philomath School Board. And he added: “The district is working on ways to improve our communication not just with the charter school but overall.”

A recent change

Both Wells and Hazelton said that the relationship between Kings Valley and the Philomath School District started getting tense about two years ago.

Wells, who was involved in helping start up Kings Valley Charter School before being elected to the school board in 2003, said the legal dispute has been awkward.

He lives in Kings Valley. His children attended Kings Valley School before it was chartered. He’s friends with a lot of the charter school community.

Wells said that historically the relationship between the district and charter school was positive and collaborative.

“Things started to change about two years ago when we started putting the brakes on them,” Wells said. “We were cautious all along because we wanted to make sure things didn’t have a negative impact on the rest of the district. Our enrollment has been declining while theirs has increased.”

Hazelton said changes in district leadership and administration in recent years also have played a factor in the changing relationship.

He said past superintendents worked well with him. However, he said, over the years, the frequency of communication between him and the district has decreased.

“People are busier these days and there’s more that has to be done in terms of state requirements,” Hazelton said. In particular, he said that Philomath Schools Superintendent Dan Forbess has been working hard during the past year on the district’s school construction projects.

Both Forbess and Hazelton said that they hope to work on improving their relationship, now that the district’s construction projects are wrapping up.

Northern, of the Sweet Home and Sand Ridge charter schools, said that changes in district and charter school leadership often affect relationships.

“We are working with a new superintendent in Sweet Home this year,” Northern said. “So there’s a learning curve. We are both adjusting to each other.”

Rebuilding relationships

On Friday, a motion by the Philomath School District to dismiss Kings Valley Charter School’s original lawsuit was denied in Benton County Circuit Court.

After her ruling, Judge Janet Holcomb encouraged both sides to continue working on their issues.

But whenever the dispute is resolved, whether through mediation or the legal process, it’s going to take a lot of work to repair the relationship between the two parties, Wells and Hazelton acknowledged.

“Going forward, it’s going to take some time to build that trust back,” Wells said. “There’s going to be hard feelings regardless what happens.”

Hazelton said that both sides will have to move past the dispute.

In the meantime, local charter school leaders are sympathetic to the situation, especially the students.

 “You can’t lose sight of why we are here — the kids,” said Hays, of the Muddy Creek Charter School. “It’s OK to have disagreements. In fact, wise people should disagree at times. But they also have to be able to work together on solutions too.”

Raju Woodward can be contacted at 541-231-7876 or raju.woodward@lee.net

Copyright 2015 Albany Democrat Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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