National News April 18, 2009

Charter planning grants awarded
Springfield's A3 is among county's schools to receive funding to craft its proposal.

Three of Lane County’s four applicants for federal charter school planning grants learned this week the money is theirs.

Lorane School, Triangle Lake School and Springfield’s Academy of Arts and Academics (A3) were among 10 successful applicants in the latest twice-yearly round for the planning grants, a crucial first step on the path to establishing a new, independent charter school. The state had 28 applicants, a record number. A fourth local applicant — Blue Mountain School, which lost its charter in the South Lane district this year and proposed a sponsorship through the Marcola district — was not selected.

Charter organizers will use the funds to craft proposals, which then need approval from sponsoring school boards following public input.

If boards sign off, the schools will receive as much as $450,000 more over the next three years to pay for staff training, consultants, curriculum, marketing, equipment, limited remodeling and other start-up costs.

The charter schools model offers a community a way to create a school that often has lower operating costs than traditional schools — particularly for employee compensation — and greater flexibility in class offerings, all funded with federal start-up money and a large portion of the annual per-pupil payment from the state for public school students.

Nine of the 10 applicants sought the maximum planning grant of $55,000, but Lorane requested only $22,300. Crow-Applegate-Lorane board member and project director Andy Stahl said that should be plenty for organizers to put together and promote a plan to convert tiny Lorane Elementary into a K-12 charter school offering in-depth, personalized learning and a climate of equity and trust.

The goal, he said, is to open in the fall of 2010.

Faced with a crushing budget shortfall, the board last fall broached the possibility of shuttering Lorane Elementary — an idea that’s come up in past budget crises, but never come to pass. Instead, Stahl and other community members and parents suggested the charter school route — an option likely to be most popular with Lorane residents, whose middle and high school students endure long commutes to Crow Middle/High School. It might not be so popular with Crow residents, whose already-small secondary school would presumably lose students — and the per-pupil state dollars that follow them — to the charter school.

The school board approved the grant application unanimously. While that doesn’t necessarily mean it will sail through, Stahl said he’s optimistic.

“I don’t think that my colleagues vote their geography,” he said. “We’re all trying to do what’s best for all the kids in the district. And now, with an opportunity to raise in the range of $400,000 for the district, I think we’ll find the district rallies around to make that a success.”

The Triangle Lake School District has found itself in similar fiscal straits in recent years, a victim primarily of declining enrollment. That, coupled with the state’s dire revenue shortfall, prompted the school board last fall to reconsider an idea it had tabled a year earlier: converting its single, K-12 school into a charter school.

“The idea is would there be a way to do some things differently and create some more sustainabilty,” Superintendent Steve Dickenson said. “One of those was some notions of if there was money to change the model to be more technology-oriented, it would open up more distance education opportunities for kids.”

Other advantages, he said, include being able to bring in noncertified instructors to each specialized subjects, as the charter school law requires only half a school’s teachers be certified; and potentially attracting students from neighboring districts, as charter school students may cross boundaries without permission from their home districts.

“You can create enemies out of your neighbors by reaching across your borders, so you have to be careful about that,” Dickenson said.

Financial duress was less of a factor with the A3 application, though Springfield School District officials acknowledged the benefits of drawing in outside money, given the district’s ongoing financial woes.

A small, arts-focused high school in its third year, A3 would remain within the district fold as a charter school, administrator and teacher Mike Fisher said, though it would enjoy a degree of independence and be required to have its own board of directors. Fisher said there was talk at A3’s outset of pursuing charter school status, but the school wanted first to establish itself as a regular district high school.

The school’s startup was funded through a $312,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Meyer Memorial Trust; Fisher estimated the Oregon Small Schools Initiative, which administers those grants, has passed along another $150,000 or so — most recently, a $60,000 extension grant announced earlier this month — to pay for the same kinds of things the charter school grants would fund, though also some staffing time.

Fisher said the funds would be used for training and visits to schools with similar programs for staff, including guest artists, as well as marketing, equipment and remodeling.

“The infusion of funding will make a significant difference in terms of our facilities,” he said. He acknowledged that might sound “funny,” given that just last week the school held an open house to celebrate a $2.3 million remodel and addition, mostly paid for with general fund dollars. But the school has taken off in new directions, he said, with music composition and media technology requiring new spaces and equipment.

Like any charter school, A3 could enroll students from other districts, though priority would first go to resident pupils.

Springfield Board Chairwoman Nancy Bigley said many details have yet to be ironed out, but described the board as “supportive” of the charter concept.

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