News

California charter school bid deflected

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Three members of the Federal Way School Board said they were not aware of an application proposing a charter school here.

During the board's meeting on Tuesday, board members Bob Millen, Earl VanDorien Jr. and Ed Barney each took time to state the district was not aware of any application, despite recent news stories.

Charter schools are run apart from existing school districts. Charter schools, while publicly funded, are not subject to many guidelines traditional public schools are required to follow. Their charter status can be revoked by a school board and, thus, lose public funding.

The comments from the board members followed recent news that a charter school company in southern California, Desert Sands Charter School, would submit an application to Federal Way Public Schools for a charter school.

A spokesman for Desert Sands, near Los Angeles, said Thursday the application should arrive at the school district on Monday.

The application will be on hold while a statewide referendum opposing charter schools is put on the November ballot in Washington. The secretary of state's office validated on Thursday the more than 150,000 signatures petitioning for Referendum 55 to go to the voters.

This is the third time voters will decide the fate of charter schools. The previous referendums have resulted in charter schools being nixed by voters.

Millen said it's his preference to wait a few years before looking seriously at any charter school applications because the district has been going through tremendous changes. He cited the move from junior high to middle school programs and opening Todd Beamer High School.

While interested in charter schools as an individual, VanDorien said he wasn't sure they would do much good. And he was not impressed with Desert Sands Charter School, noting it had a "dismal record of failure."

"They have to come up with something a lot better," VanDorien said of a charter proposal in Federal Way.

On Wednesday, VanDorien pointed to www.greatschools.net to support his comments at the meeting. The Web site shows the charter school's performance in 2003 and shows it having a score of 1 (with 10 being the best) on the site Academic Performance Index that measures school improvement based on tests the school's students take. However, the site also notes the charter school didn't data from 2002 because that was the year the school opened.

VanDorien also said he didn't favor approving a charter school run by an out-of-state organization and knowing that Washington tax dollars could the state.

Barney said he had been contacted by a representative of the southern California charter school about applying. He said he told that individual to do their research and present a plan to the board. But he wanted to make it clear those were the only comments he had made.

"Nothing is under the table or behind the scenes," he said to the audience at Tuesday's board meeting.

He added he supported charter schools even if they only helped 30 students who were not succeeding in the current system.

Brock d'Avignon, the coordinator of the proposed school, said the founders of Desert Sand chose Federal Way because of a resolution the district's board passed encouraging charter schools.

At its meeting on Dec. 3 last year, the board passed a resolution requesting that state legislators approve charter school legislation. It passed 3-1, with VanDorien the sole vote against and Charles Hoff, Evelyn Castellar and Barney approving the resolution. Millen was absent.

District superintendent Tom Murphy reminded the board of his opposition to charter schools.

Legislators approved Senate Bill 5012 this year, allowing charter schools to open in existing school districts despite two previous rejections by state voters of similar proposals.

Evergreen Charter High School, as the proposed school is called, would specialize in helping students who are at-risk or who have dropped out of traditional programs, d'Avignon said.

Desert Sands Charter School has that mission at its two campuses. Flexible schedules and one-on-one education are reasons why the school works for many of the 1,100 students, d'Avignon said.

Many come to the program with a reading level between the third and sixth grades, but leave with improved levels, he said.

Desert Sands claims to have a 98 percent retention rate for high school dropouts over 18-years-old who enter the program.

Millen and Van Dorien received applause from the audience, which included Federal Way Education Association president Mike Comstock. The local teachers' union and the Washington Education Association have publicly rejected charter schools and the recent legislation allowing them.

Comstock said he was pleased with Van Dorien and Millen's comments. He added that while some charter schools have had success, public schools could produce the results by not being bound by rules the charter schools can ignore.

Charter schools would also drain funds from existing school districts because state funds will follow students as they leave public schools for charter institutions, said Rich Wood, spokesman for the WEA.

The state funds school districts based on the number of students enrolled.

"There would not be an equal drop in costs," Wood said. A class might lose a couple of students (and more than $7,000 per student) to a charter school, but the costs for the electricity, teachers' salaries and classroom supplies would remain the same.

Wood acknowledged the WEA also wouldn't have representation in charter schools because the legislation prohibits existing teachers unions from bargaining for charter school educators during the first five years.

That, d'Avignon said, is what the WEA is really fighting.

Also, teachers at Desert Sands aren't members of their local union because the pay scale is too low, considering their previous careers as chemists, researchers and attorneys. Many would take a significant pay cut if they worked in traditional public schools, he said.

Teachers leaving a long career in the professional sector start at between $40,000 and $50,000 annually at Desert Sands, d'Avignon said.

And he poo-poos the state teachers' union's assertion of money leaving public schools for charter schools.

"These are public schools," d'Avignon said. "A better kind? Shall I be so bold?"

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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