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Charter school, district look for answers

Tanya Canino, Sun News Service

Struggling to define its relationship with the Prosser Creek Charter School, the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District Board of Trustees looked for answers Thursday, a year after it approved the charter school.

The Prosser Creek Charter School provides education to 350 students, of which 160 live within the boundaries of the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District. It provides home schooling to most of its children, but is also offering an increasing number of day-long classes for various grades.

The charter was approved by the school board a year ago, with neither the charter organizers nor the school district able to foresee the impacts to the district.

Trustee Karen Van Epps said the school board approved the charter a year ago to avoid an adversarial relationship. If a school district refuses to sponsor a charter school, the charter can seek approval from the county or the state government which is urging the formation of charter schools, she said.

Last May, the school board thought that it would receive 15 percent of each child’s funding in the charter school; instead the law changed to allow school districts to only receive 1 percent funding, Van Epps said.

Prosser Creek Charter School Head Jayna Gaskell said that funding change was due to charter schools having to provide special education services.

She noted that the school district could receive a larger percentage of each child’s funding if it provided other services to the charter school.

“The majority of charter schools do contract with a district for services,” Gaskell said.

The funding change from 15 percent to 1 percent of charter students’ Average Daily Attendance money, along with a loss of district students to the charter school, worsened the district’s teetering finances into a fiscal crisis last fall.

With the charter school’s direction moving toward more classroom instruction, there is a good potential of more students leaving the school district next year.

“We do have more parents looking to pull together more site-based classes. We currently have classes being formed. All of those programs are parent and student driven,” said Gaskell. “We’ve had community meetings and presentations in response to parents.”

She said Prosser Creek wants to have its class enrollment set by June, so it can budget for students and find buildings for the classes.

“We were talking more home-based a year ago,” said school board member Karen Van Epps. “It does pose a strong competition to our district.”

She said the charter school’s impacts could handicap the students whose parents must work all day and those who can’t afford the transportation to the charter school (the charter doesn’t offer transportation). The charter school also introduces an element of economic and ethnic segregation.

“I have a concern about free and appropriate education for all students,” Van Epps said.

Marion Shill, the executive director of Prosser Creek Charter School, said the charter is not closed to any student. The charter provides free education for its core curriculum of language arts, math, science and social studies. Electives or enrichment classes must be either taught by parents for free at home or the parents can pay to have the students take an elective at a site.

The charter school staff suggested that a workshop be planned between Prosser Creek and the school board to see if there are ways they can help each other and to determine the sponsoring school district’s legal obligations. The laws governing charter schools are constantly changing and there are more in the state legislature that would impact both the school district and the charter school.

“I think it would be a healthy discussion,” said Gaskell.

“I think we definitely have a lot of obligations as the sponsoring school district,” said Trustee Suzanne Prouty. “We do have a lot of concerns.”

The charter school representatives took questions from the school board, responding with the following answers.

— Because charter schools do not have to comply with the state education code, the charter school ensures that its buildings are safe through an inspection by its private insurance company. The school’s main building, the former Cedar Smoke School, is built to meet the state education code standards.

— Any charter school teachers who teach a core curriculum class of language arts, math, science or social studies must hold a teaching credential.

— A new customized computer program will enable charter school teachers to enter in a child’s learning progress and determine if the child has met the state standards in education. Children must meet or exceed the state standards.

— Prosser Creek will be visited June 3 by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges to determine if it can be a candidate for accreditation. A school cannot be fully accredited until after its second year. Prosser Creek has completed one year.

— The charter school does not expect to expand beyond 500 students at this time. Currently, there are 350 enrolled from throughout the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District and from home-school students in Northern California.

— Aside from teachers, there are three clerical staff and two independent contractors who provide custodial and technical support.

— Parents who volunteer at the school must be fingerprinted first, as a school policy.


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