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New Jeffco charter school given conditional go-ahead

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The Jeffco School Board gave a conditional approval to charter school Cornerstone Academy during their Feb. 6 regular board meeting.

The approval requires Cornerstone to meet all requirements by an April deadline in order to open this fall.

The approval, which passed on a 4-1 vote, came about after the school’s application was denied in November due to issues with the budget, site, parental and community involvement and special education plans.

Cornerstone submitted an appeal to the state, but withdrew its appeal and agreed to facilitation with Jeffco instead. Representatives from Cornerstone Academy and Jeffco Schools met on Feb. 3.

Under the terms of the agreement, Cornerstone Academy must meet all requirements by April 24 or the application will be denied, said John Peery, Jeffco Charter School Liaison.

“There was a recognition that budget was difficult, that the lack of start-up funds from the state had put a pretty good hole in their budget and they needed to fill that hole,” Peery said.

The requirements include:

  • a signed lease on a building deemed acceptable by the district
  • a balanced budget that conforms to all laws and district requirements
  • a detailed written description of how the charter school will serve students with special needs that is acceptable to the district
  • a detailed written description of governance and parental involvement that is acceptable to a district

“If they can do it, they get to move forward. If they cannot, they don’t,” Peery told the board.

If they meet all requirements by the deadline, the charter school will open in August 2014, though there is also a possibility that the school may not open until 2015 if securing an appropriate site exceeds the deadline.

“If they meet all the conditions except site, they have asked that they be given additional time to acquire a site,” Peery said.

This exception requires the other three conditions to have been satisfied. If they choose this option, Cornerstone could pursue an optional August 2015 opening date.

“We would have to have a separate discussion to extend it for a year if the site is not acceptable,” board president Ken Witt said.

Earlier in the meeting, Jeffco parent Lee Stevens told the board he had several concerns Cornerstone’s application, including the location of proposed sites and the amount of fundraising required for a balanced budget.

He questioned Cornerstone’s ability to raise $75,000 in donations when his child’s school, Devinny Elementary, only raises about $40,000 despite a very active PTA, multiple fundraisers and twice as many students as the charter school proposes to serve.

Stevens also noted that the district had already agreed to loan more than $849,000 to four existing charter schools.

That amount includes the $400,000 loan recently approved for Collegiate Academy.

“With all due respect to the people from Cornerstone — and I do not doubt their sincerity — but if this were a regular business application and we were a venture capital firm or a bank, we would tell them ‘go back and do your homework,’” Stevens said.

“I struggle because earlier this evening, we had a conversation about Mountain Phoenix, which has already exceeded the appropriate amount of its loan. It owes $160,000 to a construction firm. That bill has not been paid,” board member Lesley Dahlkemper said.

“While I support choice, I support charters, my question to this board is when do we balance those budget issues?” Dahlkemper said, mentioning the loan recently given to Collegiate Academy and a separate $160,000 loan that had been exceeded by the Mountain Phoenix charter school.

“I think we also have a responsibility to think about what is in the very best interests of all 85,000 children, whether they get online education, whether they go to a neighborhood school or whether they go to a charter school,” she said.

Peery said the board could vote on one of three options: to approve Cornerstone Academy with the listed conditions, to approve the charter school with no conditions, or to deny the application.

If denied a second time, it would probably lead to the second level of appeal at the state board, Peery said.

When a charter school appeals a local school board decision to the state, the state can uphold the local decision or remand the application back to the district for reconsideration.

After a second appeal, the state can uphold the local decision or order the local district to approve the charter.

Board member John Newkirk noted that according to his research, there were two previous cases where the state board ordered Jeffco Schools to approve charter schools. He did not specify which schools those were or if they are still operating in Jeffco.

In response to a query after the meeting, Peery stated that although he remembered one case where the state required Jeffco to approve a charter after a second appeal, and possibly a second, neither of those schools opened. He said the district has not had any recent experiences with the state board.

The charter was approved on a 4-1 vote, with Fellman, Newkirk, Williams and Witt voting for the conditional approval, and Dahlkemper voting against.

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