Washington News

April 4, 2013

Will Sequim, Port Townsend get charter schools?

by Joe Smillie

SEQUIM — The Sequim School District is one of 12 statewide, along with the Port Townsend School District, that have indicated to the state Board of Education that it intends to apply to be an authorizer of public charter schools.

That doesn't mean the district will do so.

Virginia O'Neil, chairwoman of the Sequim School Board, said Superintendent Kelly Shea made the decision to return a letter of intent, which was due by last Monday, to give the district the option of having a say in charter schools around Sequim. 

She did not say whether the board would be predisposed to accepting or rejecting charter applications. 

“At this point, we have no idea whether we're going to do it,” O'Neil said. 

“That letter of intent doesn't obligate us to anything, but it allows us to be flexible in an inflexible environment.” 

Shea was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. 

O'Neil said the board will discuss whether it wants to fill out the lengthy application to become an authorizer of public charter schools in the district's boundaries. 

The Port Townsend School District also has not made a decision to participate.

But its letter of intent is a placeholder, said School Board President Jennifer James Wilson, that “puts Port Townsend in an active, rather than reactive, position.

“It allows us to keep our options open as development of charter schools progresses.”

Port Townsend Superintendent David Engle said, “We really haven't had the time to talk about this but decided to submit a letter of intent in case we wanted to do it later. There are a lot of questions about what it will take to become a charter school that need to be answered.”

Districts expressing intent to authorize charter schools have until July 1 to complete the application. 

In November, statewide voters approved Initiative 1204, which allows the creation of public charter schools.

Authorizers can approve or reject charter school applications.

The first schools are expected to open in fall 2014.

In October, the Sequim School Board, worried it would divert funding from public education, passed a resolution against the initiative.

“But it is here now. Whether we voted for it or against it, we have it,” O'Neil said. 

Submittal of the letters of intent does not necessarily mean the districts will allow charter schools or even if their decisions will influence a final approval decision. 

Along with public school districts being given the opportunity to be named as authorizers of charter schools, a new state panel was formed under the law to also approve or deny charter schools in any district in the state, according to Jack Archer, senior policy analyst for the state Board of Education.

The panel can approve up to eight charter schools a year for the next five years, Archer said. 

Sequim and Port Townsend were the only two schools from the North Olympic Peninsula to submit letters of intent. 

“I am shocked that only 12 school districts applied,” O'Neil said. 

Ten other schools submitted their intent to the state board. They are Bellevue, Battle Ground, Eastmont, Highline, Kent, Naselle, Peninsula, Spokane, Sunnyside and Tacoma.

Diana Reaume, superintendent of the Quillayute Valley School District in Forks, said her district did not see the need to weigh in on the charter school issue, saying her staff's time already is taxed. 

“We have a smaller population. We just don't see any benefits right now,” Reaume said. 

Calls to Port Angeles School Board members and Superintendent Jane Pryne were not returned Wednesday.

State Board of Education member Kris Mayer, a Port Townsend resident, said she is unsure how the charter schools will develop in the state but is looking forward to the experiment. 

“This holds a lot of promise if we get some qualified applicants,” she said. 

“Those districts that succeed will have a past track record in being innovative and holding themselves accountable.” 

As a member of the state School Board, Mayer will have input in the decision that approves or denies any school's application to administer a charter school. 

Cost is a factor in running a charter school, but the school would get income for each enrolled student for its support. 

“This can be a challenge financially,” Mayer said.

“But in places where charter schools have worked, there is usually an active philanthropic element.” 

Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant contributed to this report.

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