VSD to Explore Charter School Application

Vernonia School District Superintendent Aaron Miller has announced the District will explore a proposal to consider making an application to become a charter school.

“We are considering moving forward with applying for charter school status for a significant portion of the students in our district,” said Miller.

Miller and the School Board discussed the opportunity at a board workshop on January 29, 2015.  The Board unanimously gave Miller the green light to move forward and begin studying the possibility of having a portion of the school district create a charter proposal.

“There are a lot of things to consider through the application process and what it means as far as the programs and curriculum we provide for our students,”  said Miller, “but there some very real resource opportunities and benefits  to us becoming a charter school.”

Miller says a steering committee made up of teachers, classified staff, district administration, parents and other community members will be formed immediately to begin considering a charter school option.

“If we do choose this option we want to make sure we have a product that is going to work for everybody—students first, but the teachers, parents and community as well,” says Miller.

According to the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) a charter school in Oregon is a public school operated by a group of parents, teachers and/or community members as a semi-autonomous school of choice within a school district. It is given the authority to operate under a contract or “charter” between the members of the charter school community and the local board of education (sponsor). Under Oregon law, a charter school is a separate legal entity operating under a binding agreement with a sponsor.  A public charter school is subject to certain laws pertaining to school district public schools, is released from others, and must operate consistent with the charter agreement.

At the January 29 school board workshop Miller introduced the idea of applying for charter school status to the Board and shared information about what constitutes a charter school, the application process, the School Board’s role and the potential benefits.

“I think the community of Vernonia should explore forming a charter school,” said Vernonia School Board President Bill Langmaid.  “We need to expand our efforts to provide meaningful education for all our students, and the specialized education that can be made available through a charter school could be the perfect fit.”

According to Miller, under ODE guidelines, at least one entity has to be maintained under the original school district.  “For us that may be Mist School, the Vernonia Elementary School, the Middle School or the High School-we would have a myriad of options,” said Miller.  “And those would be options that the local steering committee would help us to decide what would be best for the District.”

Miller says there are several important benefits to Vernonia becoming a charter school: moving current programs forward, increased flexibility in staffing which Miller says in a concern in many small school districts, and addressing debt reduction for the District.

Miller says access to additional resource opportunities could be used to expand the District’s natural resources, science, technology, engineering and math programing.  “These are areas of study the District is already focusing on,” explains Miller.  “It would provide resources to move those forward more effectively and at a quicker pace.”

Miller says resources include funding for professional development for staff to help implement new and expanded programing and funding to purchase materials and supplies to complement curriculum.

In addition, Miller says charter schools in Oregon are not required to abide by all teacher licensing rules.   “You still have to have highly qualified teachers in your core areas of reading, writing math and science,” said Miller.

But in programs like Career and Technical Education (CTE), Natural Resources, and Forestry, which Vernonia already implements, or potential subjects like Health Care, Early Child Development, or Culinary Arts, instructors from the community with a degree or real world expertise could be utilized to teach course work.

Those additional financial resources could also help address the District’s debt from the construction of the new school campus.  “There is the potential that this could also impact our long term debt needs,” said Miller, “which is directly and indirectly related to our student’s success.  If we have bills hanging over our heads, that takes away from what we can do for our kids.”

According to Miller, funding from the state basically doubles for each student enrolled in the charter school in its second year of operation. “We would be looking to maximize that,” said Miller.  “Our debt is a very real concern that hangs over the District.  Our new school building is very nice, it’s energy efficient, it meets the needs of our students and staff, and it’s a center piece for our community.  But we need to get it paid off as soon as possible.”

The process for the Vernonia School District adding a charter school would involve forming the steering committee to discuss the specifics of what the charter school would look like, which students to target and what the curriculum would focus on, and how the charter would be governed.  The steering committee would develop and draft the charter proposal to be reviewed by the Vernonia School Board.  The School Board would be required to hold a public meeting to consider comments from the community on the management plan for the charter school as well as elements of the curriculum, before making a final evaluation and decision to approve the charter proposal and submit it to the state.  The ODE would then have to approve the application and grant the charter to the District.

Miller feels there are very few concerns or negatives to Vernonia becoming a charter school.  Miller did mention that the community often has a difficult time finding people to assume leadership roles, such as School Board positions, City Council seats or City Committee members.  “Those are tough positions to fill sometimes in a small community,” said Miller.  “If we move forward with this there will still be a need to have a Vernonia School District Board in place, but there will also have to be a governing body for the charter school.  Having enough people who are willing and able to take on a leadership role and be effective is a concern.”

Public perception to change is another concern for Miller.  “Change is difficult and hard for people,” says Miller.  “We’ve had a lot of changes recently in our district and our community and we need to recognize the difficulty people have with moving forward and having things change.  So we really want to be inclusive in gathering input to make sure we are on the right track.”

“We’ll have to see how it plays out, but I’m pleased and optimistic by the support we’ve received during these initial stages in the process,” said School Board President Langmaid.  “A charter school would be another magnet drawing families to our community.”

Miller says the application deadline is May 1, 2015, which if accepted, would allow the District to add a charter school next fall.

There are currently 125 charter schools in Oregon including St. Helens Arthur Academy in St. Helens, North Columbia Academy in Rainier, and South Columbia Family School and Sauvie Island Academy, both in Scappoose.

Anyone interested in participating in the steering committee should contact Superintendent Aaron Miller at the District Office at 503-429-5891.