Port Townsend board delays decision about charter schools

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — The Port Townsend School Board said it will put off deciding on whether to become a charter school authorizer until next Monday in order to give the district superintendent time to research the issue.

At a work session last Monday, district officials said they were intrigued by the possibility of a charter school bringing innovative learning to Port Townsend but were concerned that the state’s July 1 deadline for filing an application to authorize the schools gives the district too little time to prepare.

“I’d welcome provocative, inventive educational opportunities for our kids,” Superintendent David Engle said Monday. “I’m hoping we can be first at it.”

Board officials asked Engle to find out if the decision has to be made this year or if the district can put together charter school guidelines for next year.

Engle did not make a recommendation for whether the district should move forward, wait or drop the matter but was asked to have one ready by the next board meeting, which will be at 6 p.m. Monday, May 27, at the Gael Stuart Building, 1610 Blaine St.

“I can see the pluses. I can see the negatives. I can see the absolute drain on my energy that it could become,” Engle said.

“I have some hesitation but some excitement about what it could mean for us,” Engle said.

Under Initiative 1240, which voters approved last fall, up to 40 charter schools can be authorized statewide: up to eight new schools per year for five years.

Charter schools are independent public schools operated by a panel of parents and teachers, and are funded by the state at the same rate as district schools, minus a 4 percent administration fee.

The schools may be authorized under a school district — and therefore must be located within that district — or they may be authorized as corporate schools and operate anywhere in the state.

Two school districts on the North Olympic Peninsula — Sequim and Port Townsend — submitted letters of intent in April to become charter school authorizers.

Officials in both districts said at the time that the letters didn’t mean they would actually file applications to authorize the schools by the July 1 deadline.

The letters were place-holders to allow them to consider the ramifications.

“We are one of a limited number of school districts in the state who said that they would like to become authorizers, or intend to explore the idea of becoming authorizers,” Engle said.

Sequim School District dropped out last week, he noted.

Thirteen districts statewide had shown initial interest. At least one other in addition to Sequim dropped out, Engle said.

Most charter schools will be in larger suburban or urban areas, he said.

“I’m reading between the lines. I think this is not meant to help small school districts to move in that direction,” he said.

The addition of small charter schools with tudents who need a different style of schooling could be a benefit for the district, Engle said.

“The only thing I worry about is if a charter school came into our community, approved by the state commission, and peeled off 100 kids. It would bring us to our knees,” he said.

Engle noted a number of stumbling blocks in becoming a charter school authorizer:

-- There will be only 10 days between being notified of state acceptance of being an authorizer and the state deadline to open for charter school applications.

--   Districts cannot control the charter school’s agenda.

--   If a prospective charter applicant didn’t like the district’s requirements for requests for proposals, it could take its application to the commission.

If the district chooses to go forward, there is a lot of work to do, Engle said.

“We have to create a strategic vision for chartering: ‘This is what we would like to authorize and support in our community,’” he told the School Board.

“You create this vision for chartering, the characteristics of the schools we are most interested in authorizing.”

Short deadlines were identified by both Engle and the school board as the biggest hurdle.

“It’s scary. If I’d had a year’s notice it would be a push,” Engle said.

Engle told the board there is some guidance to the process, including authorizer capacity and commitment, identified rules and responsibilities.

Authorizing districts also are required to monitor the schools’ performance.

“This is where it get scary for me. There are not a lot of people who are bumping around whom I can assign it to. It becomes another school in our system, in a lot of ways,” Engle said.

“If I had a team of grant writers, we could probably make that, but we have school up until mid-June, and I need to pay attention to that,” he said.

One possible example of an innovative school in Port Townsend would be a maritime academy.

“That’s tantalizing,” Engle said. “But tantalizing enough to go through this process at breakneck speed on resources we don’t have, then find out that that’s not how it’s going to happen? That’s kind of a gamble here.”

Centrum, as a nonprofit, could open an academy for the performing arts, School Board members suggested.

“They could do that,” Engle said.

But coming up with starter money and maintaining current programs would be a real challenge, he said.

Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: May 19. 2013 6:17PM
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