Washington News

March 21, 2013

Tacoma School Board considers becoming charter-school authorizer

by Debbie Cafazzo, Staff Writer

Some members of the Tacoma School Board are tiptoeing carefully around the idea of charter schools – and whether they want to signal their intent to become an authorizer of the independently run, publicly funded schools.

But board member Karen Vialle said at a study session Thursday that Tacoma needs to stay in the game if it wants its voice to be heard.

“Right now, charter schools are a reality here in the state of Washington,” she said. “I would like to continue making constructive comments about whether they are good for kids or not.”

Initiative 1240, approved by a narrow margin of voters in November, made Washington the 42nd state in the nation to adopt charters.

Charter schools could start operating in Washington in the fall of 2014. Charter operators must be nonreligious, nonprofit organizations. The organizations must win approval either from a local school board that applies to the state to become a charter authorizer, or from a recently appointed statewide charter commission.

The Tacoma School Board opposed Initiative 1240 last fall. But now that it has passed, board members are struggling over its implications for the school district.

Board President Debbie Winskill asked about one possibility: What if a charter operator wanted to rent an unused school building from the district, but the building needed an expensive new roof? Would the district have to pay for the roof?

Consultant Holly Ferguson, a former Seattle Public Schools administrator, said the initiative was vague on those kinds of questions. But she said that could be addressed in the contract between the authorizing district and the charter.

Others were concerned about how much it would cost the district to fulfill its oversight responsibilities for charters that open in Tacoma – regardless of who authorizes them.

The charter law says that school districts that authorize charters would be able to charge the schools for administrative costs, but that oversight fees are capped at 4 percent of a charter school’s annual state funding. A district could also contract with its charters to provide services – special education or school lunches, for example – for a fee.

Vialle urged her fellow board members to overcome their hesitancy and take at least the first step.

She said there’s a better chance Tacoma could influence how state regulations on charters evolve if the district submits a letter of intent to the State Board of Education stating its interest. She said Tacoma should submit a letter “to secure a place, until we decide if we want to be (authorizers) in the first year.”

School districts have until April 1 to submit a letter of intent indicating their interest in becoming a charter school authorizer for the first round of Washington charters. Then they will have until July 1 to formally apply.

Two districts elsewhere in the state have already expressed interest: Eastmont in East Wenatchee and the Highline School District south of Seattle.

The Tacoma School Board plans to vote on whether to submit a letter of intent at its meeting Thursday. The board will meet at 3:30 p.m. in the Wilson High School auditorium, a change from its usual meeting time and location.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635




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