School Board to Make Charter School Decision

The Vernonia School Board will meet in a special meeting on April 21 at 6:30 PM to decide whether to sponsor a Charter School and submit an application to the Oregon Department of Education (ODE).

The Vernonia School District formed a Steering Committee earlier this spring made up of citizens, school staff, School Board members and parents to discuss the possibility of submitting an application to the state to become a Charter School.  The Steering Committee held discussions, decided to move forward, and prepared the formal application which was reviewed by a School Board Subcommittee for completeness.  Following two public hearings, the full School Board is currently evaluating the application on its merits and will make a final decision about submitting it to the State at the special meeting on April 21.

The proposed application would leave the Mist School separate from the charter.  The charter  would encompass the entire K-12  Vernonia School.  The new Charter School would require the formation of a separate Board of Directors and require independent accounting processes.

Vernonia District Superintendent Aaron Miller elaborated on the Charter School application process during a recent conversation.  Miller said the Steering Committee included several community partners and was what he deemed “a representative group” that included “a wide range of people from the community.”

According to Miller the Steering Committee identified several advantages to becoming a Charter School.  Miller said one advantage was the ability to expand the Natural Resources curriculum that the District has already made a priority as well as expanding programs like engineering, math and art.  “We feel like we’ve done a good job but the Charter School option comes with some extra funding that would provide resources and supplies we need to keep moving them forward and also provide professional development for teachers to implement new and innovative programs,” said Miller.

Miller said another advantage is the way the State currently funds Charter Schools.  Currently Charter Schools are double funded, which Miller says would allow Vernonia to implement new programs as well as address the long term debt the District is dealing with from the construction of the new school campus. “We still have a sizable amount of money that we still have to pay off,” said Miller.  “But everyone needs to remember that we have a $42 million building for our community which we paid $13 million for.”  Miller emphasized that the new campus is a wonderful asset for the District and the community.

Miller said the biggest point of contention during the Steering Committee discussions was whether to include the Mist School in the application. The Steering Committee considered two models, one that would include the entire District in a Charter, but would require all students to be under one roof and therefore require the closure of the Mist School.  The second option would leave Mist School separate from the rest of the District.  Miller said that through the discovery process the District learned that they were not eligible to become a Charter District because the District is too large. That left the Steering Committee to move forward with creating a charter that would leave Mist School separate.

Miller said the disagreement over the possible closure of Mist School early in the discussion led to the Steering Committee choosing to begin creating applications for both models – the Charter District and the Charter School with Mist separate.  Miller says choosing to begin two applications allowed the process to move forward and it wasn’t until ten days into the process that the District learned they were not eligible to become a Charter District.

One of the drawbacks of becoming a Charter School is the need for extra administration, including the formation of a second School Board,  the creation of a separate bookkeeping system and a second budget process.  Miller said it would also require a separate annual audit of finances.  Miller says there is concern that the State Legislature is considering making changes to Oregon House Bill 2150 which regulates Charter Schools that could eliminate the double funding mechanism.  Miller says if that happens the District will not move forward with the charter application.

“We are looking at this entire process as a school and District improvement process,” explained Miller.  “Whether we become a Charter School or not we are going to utilize the information that we’ve gathered.  The areas we are currently focusing on: science, technology, engineering, arts and math, as well as expanding our Career and Technical Education programs and building our partnerships with local business, organizations and agencies – those are also things that are the focus of the charter.  We’re going to continue to develop them.  If the money from the charter is available, then it’s worth our while to go through and do those double governance systems.  If the funding  is not there we can still use the input we’ve received from the community and implement those initiatives.  It will take us a lot longer but we’ll still move forward.  But it’s not worth it to put in place all those requirements if the funding is not there.”

Miller said attendance and input at the public hearings was helpful.  “The community input process helped us develop a better application and create something that is ultimately going to work for the community.”

Miller said if the School Board approves the Charter application, then the District has sixty days  to process paperwork with ODE to form the Charter.  Miller says there is no acceptance process needed on the part of the state; once the School Board decides to submit their application and completes the paperwork, they become a Charter School.