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Academy appeals to the State Board of Education

By Erick Bengel

The Cannon Beach Academy, a charter school that has been in development for more than a year, has finally taken its charter proposal to the State Board of Education.

After the Seaside School District Board denied the academy’s charter proposal twice — first in February and again in June — the charter school had no recourse but to appeal the school district’s decision to the state board late last month.

Once it reviews the proposal and the school district’s reasons for repeatedly rejecting it, the state board will determine whether the district made the right decision, or whether the state board should sponsor the charter school itself.

The whole process, from filing the appeal to the final ruling, is expected to take six to seven months, said Phil Simmons, president of the charter school board.

Of the 124 charter schools in Oregon, only four are sponsored by the State Board of Education.

If the state approves the charter proposal and becomes the academy’s sponsor, 90 percent of the school district’s funding that would have gone toward educating the student at a Seaside School District elementary school will follow the students who choose to enroll in the charter school. An additional 5 percent will go toward paying the state board’s administrative costs.

Had it approved the charter proposal, the district would have lost only 80 percent, said Kate Pattison, the state board’s charter school specialist.

Currently, the academy has 104 children signed up to attend, Simmons said. With so many defectors, the school district stands to lose more than $629,600, or $6,296 per child, plus another $34,980, in annual funding, according to figures for the 2014-15 school year provided by the district.

Assuming the charter proposal is approved and the academy can acquire land and set up portable classrooms in time, the charter school board is on track to open in fall 2015, said Sam Steidel, a member of the academy’s building committee.

Pattison expects the review of the charter proposal to be finished by late September. The appeal is scheduled to take place in Salem on Oct. 23 during the state board meeting. Unless the state superintendent intervenes, the final decision from the state board will be handed down sometime in December.


Moment of truth


The state board will ask five reviewers to rate the Cannon Beach Academy’s charter school proposal using a rubric very similar to the one used by the Seaside School District.

The eight criteria, all of which must be met, include: the charter school’s level of community support; its financial stability; whether it can provide comprehensive instruction; whether the charter school will have a negative impact on the school district; and whether it has made arrangements for students needing special education.

The department’s staff members, including Pattison, will examine the ratings, add their own input, produce a combined report and recommend that the state board either approve or deny the charter proposal.

“The process is rigorous and fairly involved,” Pattison said.

If the state board approves the charter proposal, the board will become the legal sponsor of the school and enter into a charter contract with the Cannon Beach Academy.

But, although the state board is the sponsor, the charter school’s funding will still flow from the Seaside School District, which also will be responsible for providing resources for special education students.

If the state board denies the charter proposal, that’s typically “the end of the road,” Pattison said. “When a district denies a proposal, it’s usually that the state will also find some deficiencies,” although, she added, “that isn’t always the case.”

The Cannon Beach Academy may pursue a judicial review, in which a court will decide whether the state board acted fairly. Most charter schools don’t go this route, though Simmons said that the Cannon Beach Academy may choose to do so.

Failing that, however, the charter school will have to start all over at the district level.

On the bright side, “you have all this work done and all this great feedback, so you can strengthen your proposal” she said.


Hope from tragedy


The idea for the Cannon Beach Academy came about shortly after the Seaside School District closed Cannon Beach Elementary School in June 2013 and sent its former students to Seaside Heights Elementary School. The loss was like a sudden hammer blow to the community’s heart.

Some parents expressed concern for their children’s longer bus rides. Others, in particular those who work in Cannon Beach, disliked that they couldn’t as easily make time to visit their younger children in their new classrooms nearly nine miles away.

And many people, from business owners to retirees, recognized that the lack of a grade school might discourage young families from moving to town.

Over several months, the Cannon Beach Academy — through fundraisers, a pledge drive, public meetings and grassroots organizing — worked to build local support for the charter school.


Resistance


But the academy has faced obstacles and opposition since it first submitted its charter proposal to the school district.

The district’s first denial in February pointed out several major problems for the charter school, including its lack of secure funding and sustained community support.

In an effort both to solidify funding and to prove that the community does support the charter school, the Cannon Beach Academy launched a pledge drive in March, totaling $412,000 so far, on top of the $23,000 remaining in the academy’s bank account.

The academy also plans to apply for recently reinstated $140,000 federal grant that it may qualify for, said Barb Knop, the academy’s treasurer.

This money would be used to cover the academy’s start-up and operating costs, such as leasing land, renting portable classrooms and buying the curriculum and school supplies, during its first three years.

Apart from all of this, however, the school board believes that the creation of the charter school would have an “adverse effect” on the overall quality of education throughout the district.

The precipitous loss of well over $500,000, school officials claimed, would force the district to cut teachers and scale back programs at Seaside and Gearhart elementary, Broadway Middle and Seaside High schools.

The district’s second denial came in June, repeating the objections of the first denial and adding another: that the city-owned RV Park, where the academy wants to set up its portable classrooms, may be within the tsunami inundation zone and is built on fill material that may liquefy during an earthquake.

Simmons has argued, using a report from local geologist Tom Horning, that portable classrooms are not large enough to pose a threat in and of themselves during an earthquake, even when placed on fill.

In any case, the academy’s long-term goal is to set up permanent structures on the South Wind site, near Tolovana Mainline, east of U.S. Highway 101.


No guarantees


The academy’s present financial plan, based on pledges and not-yet-awarded grant money, may not bode well for the charter school, Pattison said.

“Just through best practice, a heavy reliance on fundraising is not necessarily considered strong. It’s higher risk,” she said.

With that in mind, the state board has seen some charter schools find success through fundraising when the schools give themselves a “long enough development window.” Sometimes burgeoning charter schools forge partnerships with other nonprofit organizations that have a history of serving their populations, making it easier for the charter school to attract grant money.

It normally takes two years, at a minimum, to form a charter school, Pattison said. And, actually, three to five years is a more realistic goal, considering all that is involved in building relationships, raising money, developing a curriculum, finding facilities and then navigating the process of getting approved.

“It is a challenge for people who want to start a charter school,” she said. “When you think about it, the stakes are high here. There are so many pieces to starting a school from scratch. We’re talking about starting a public school; there’s a lot of work that is involved in making sure all the pieces are in place.”



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