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Jeffco School Board approves $250k loan to charter school

A Jeffco charter school was approved for a $250,000 five-year loan during the regular Jeffco School Board meeting on March 6, making the school the second charter school to receive a loan this year.

Representatives from the Mountain Phoenix Community School, the only Jeffco charter school to offer a Waldorf Education approach to K-8 students, said unexpected construction costs associated with their middle school construction and lower than expected enrollment led to a budget shortfall and their loan request.

Mountain Phoenix already had an existing loan with Jeffco Schools that had been approved in 2008 for $93,000 to be paid back over three years. That loan was later extended to five years and Mountain Phoenix was expected to pay the district the $19,800 it still owes this year.

Instead, the school found itself unable to pay the $163,343.20 it owed to Himmelman Construction for the cost of their middle school construction project, on top of a shortfall of $188,000 in operating funds due to low enrollment.

Mountain Phoenix Principal Donna Newberg-Long told the Jeffco School Board that the school was only short of their enrollment goal by 17.5 students. They adjusted their budget by cutting salaries and benefits, she said.

Mountain Phoenix’s loan request shows the school also received $45,000 in donations that were used to address the budget issues as well.

Other unexpected expenses, including an $83,000 water tap fee and utility bills that exceeded the budget amount by $40,000, contributed to the shortfall.

Some Jeffco School Board members voiced concern about the loan request. Board member Lesley Dahlkemper asked the school representatives to help her understand how granting them a $250,000 loan was a fiscally responsible decision when red flags like the enrollment shortfall had been ignored.

Newberg-Long explained that although they had a number of students on the waitlist last year, several of them “had feet in two doors” and had already committed to another school when a slot opened up.

Board member Julie Williams asked whether the school had had an independent budget audit. She was told the school had been working with district personnel.

Fellman questioned whether funding a loan for a school with low third-grade TCAP reading scores wouldn’t conflict with the board’s goals of raising third-grade reading proficiency to 85 percent in 2014-15.

Mountain Phoenix’s 2013 third-grade reading scores were 61.7 percent in comparison to the district’s average of 79.5 percent.

Newberg-Long explained that due to the Waldorf philosophy, which advocates for starting slow, their reading proficiency tends to be below average in third grade but exceeds district standards by middle school.

Typically, students educated under the Waldorf model do not begin formal reading and math instruction until they are 6 or 7 years old.

Reading proficiency scores on the charter school’s 2013 TCAP increased for each grade, with 75 percent of fourth graders, 75.9 percent of fifth graders, 86.2 percent of sixth graders and 89.5 percent of seventh graders testing proficient or advanced.

In comparison, the district’s average 2013 TCAP reading scores were 76 percent for fourth grade, 77.7 percent for fifth grade, 83.1 percent for sixth grade, and 75.9 percent for seventh grade.

Board member John Newkirk said he was impressed with their seventh-grade reading scores.

The loan was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Williams hesitating and voting yes after stating that she wanted to see an audit and schedule a summer check-in with the school. Newkirk and Witt also voted to approve the loan, and Dahlkemper and Fellman voted against it.

In January, the Jeffco School Board approved a five-year $400,000 loan to charter school Collegiate Academy after that school also experienced a sizable enrollment drop. That loan was an extension of a loan for $150,000 that Collegiate had received from the district in 2012 after experiencing severe budget shortfalls.

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